Got the G20 Blues? Putting China’s Environmental Progress in Context

In the final days before the G20 meeting starts in Hangzhou, you’ll see a phrase used around Chinese social media, but in particular by people in and around the Yangtze River Delta and the city of Hangzhou: G20 blue.

A relatively blue sky day in Shanghai from the roof of my social enterprise LOHAUS

At first this buzzword may seem to be one of those under-the-radar social commentaries that China’s cynical Netizens are apt to make to avoid Internet censorship: Rather than directly writing, “The air quality will soon go back to giving us cancer! :_( ” — which might get deleted for making an unfounded scientific claim or spreading rumors — they instead write, “Enjoy G20 blue while you can! ;-) ” But here’s a question, and a hope: Could G20 blue be here to stay?

It is of course an unfortunate necessity to qualify the color of the sky in China’s major cities, but where did this idea come from in the first place? The phrase can trace its origins back to when Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, when China widely reported its progress on achieving a certain number of so-called Blue Sky Days. The number of blue sky days was a yearly target and defined by a five-level environmental standard for air quality. There was an evident mismatch between what constituted ‘good’ air and what would actually result in a ‘blue’ sky, resulting in many days that were blue only in the sense of sadness — depressingly grey and overcast — instead of azure.

Later, during major events such as the APEC meeting in Beijing in 2014, the municipal government again imposed various pollution control measures such as shutting down heavy industries and street BBQs, and keeping some cars off the road to achieve a truly blue sky, which China’s netizens mockingly described as “APEC blue” in honor of the occasion, knowing from their experience of the Beijing Olympics that it would be a short respite and end just as soon as the restrictions were lifted. And they mostly were. Pollution went from bad to worse, taking the form of the Airpocalypses, noted especially in 2013, the year before APEC, then back in December 2014 after APEC Beijing concluded, and again in 2015. That last one was special for a reason I’ll get to in a moment.

A view from downtown Shanghai during one of our 2015 ‘airpocalypses’

So “G20 blue” is a variation on a theme of observable pollution, and possibly a sardonic comment on the soon-to-get-worse air quality. But right now, days before the G20 meeting is set to begin, the entire Yangtze River Delta is is in fact enjoying terrific weather and has done so for the two weeks leading up to the event. Consequently you can see a lot of people using G20 blue intheir WeChat social media feeds.

I believe this is not just more of the same. One difference I notice as a foreign resident of Shanghai is that while “APEC blue” was often said mockingly, today when people instead say G20 blue, they are actually using it more authentically, as in, ‘I’m enjoying the great G20 blue weather!’ To me this attitude is part of the sea-change that is going on in regard to sustainability in China today. And it’s why many people are too pessimistic on pollution in China.

As I’ve been writing in my books about the Chinese economy since 2008, sustainability is simultaneously the country’s biggest challenge and its biggest opportunity. It appears the government now agrees, making “Green” one of the five key themes of the 13th Five Year Plan out earlier this year, and its China’s most sustainability-oriented plan yet.

Here was the air quality outside my home (yes, I live next to a construction site) on a relatively polluted day in May 2015.

What I notice living in Shanghai the past year is the notably better air quality. I run air filters in my home and a pollution monitor 24 hours a day, and the number of days when the monitor inside and a check of outside air quality have an extreme divergence are fewer. And it’s been months since I’ve seen a day where the sky was Airpocalypse grey. There are more cars on the road according to official statistics, so the decrease in smog must be from something else. Whatever it is, it’s working. The Beijing air quality situation is getting better as well, though less dramatically than Shanghai’s. That reason the 2015 Beijing Airpocalypse was special? It was not the severity, which was pretty bad, it was that for the first time ever the city government declared a pollution red alert. Not only did they take kids out of school, preventing them from having the trek back and forth in the open air, they instantly limited pollution with factory inspections, traffic controls, and other measures. Before, it had been taboo to even acknowledge pollution as a problem. Since 2015, the local and national government have not only acknowledged it, they are taking very concrete steps to do something.

Don’t get me wrong, pollution in many parts of China is still horrendous. But these recent actions and policy changes give me hope that G20 blue is here to stay, and based on my understanding of China’s new economic policy plan, we’re looking at a steady progress towards better air quality in Shanghai and other Chinese cities.

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Thanks for reading! This was my first Medium post… please let me know what you think by commenting or sharing! If you’d like to read my books about economy and sustainability in China, please check out my Amazon page.

All photos by Jason Inch (Attribution / CC BY)

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