Scorched Earth / China’s Wounded Environment
Every time I have returned to China over the past two decades, it has seemed like the air has grown more intensely polluted with every return journey. Last winter air quality index numbers entered the realm of science fiction; twice as bad, three times as bad and sometimes over 4 times as bad as a SMOGGY day in Los Angeles, infamous for its air pollution. I live downwind in Tokyo and wanted to see for myself what was going on.
In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing began monitoring air pollution against the wishes of the Chinese government because the results, which were tweeted out, revealed the air in Beijing to be worse than the government had been willing to admit. In 2013, the central government relented and set up roughly 500 air pollution monitoring stations around the country, revealing that the worst air in the country was in Hebei, the province that wraps around Beijing like a collar, meaning that the families of the political elite were allowing their own families to be slowly poisoned.
The largest sources of this airborne contamination are coal-burning steel and glass factories that place several cities in Hebei in the top ten of the most air-polluted cities in China and Xingtai, Hebei as of January 2015 earned the dubious distinction as being the most air polluted city in that nation. Pollution infiltrates houses, agricultural fields, butchered meat, and the water people drink. Coal ash slowly rains down and coats everything. Everything.
Then there is the issue of greenhouse gases leading to global warming and climate change. China recently surpassed the United States in production of greenhouse gases to become the planet’s top emitter and it consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. So, where goes China, so goes the planet’s climate.
Hebei may also be a canary in the coal mine for difficult economic times ahead for the entire country. With the economic slowdown in China, Hebei’s steel mills, which produce ¼ of China’s steel output, have been running well below capacity. Add to that, a government restructuring scheme to clean the capital’s air has led to closing down the oldest and most-polluting steel mills and glass factories. The Hebei Provincial Development and Reform Commission estimates that up to 200,000 jobs could be lost. Money in Hebei is drying up. The first chapter in China’s post nation-building history has arrived early in Hebei.
To view more climate change work, check out @everydayclimatechange or @jameswhitlowdelano, both on Instagram.
James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for over 20 years. His work has been awarded internationally: the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma, etc. His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art. The Mercy Project / Inochi his charity photo book for hospice received the PX3 Gold Award and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts.
His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents. His latest award-winning monograph book, Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 (FotoEvidence) explored the aftermath of Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear disaster. He’s a grantee for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for work documenting the destruction of equatorial rainforests and human rights violations of indigenous inhabitants there.
In 2015, Delano founded EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed, where photographers from 6 continents document global climate change on 7 continents.