It's clear the government has taken notice this time as well. Beijing implemented several emergency measures to curb smog. State media is talking about the pollution.
After speaking with a few experts, it seems clear what needs to be done: China has to reduce its reliance on coal, increase renewable energy, regulate the amount of smog-causing sulfur that can go into its diesel fuel and increase vehicle efficiency.
"It's not rocket science," said Pettit, from NRDC.
There will, of course, be costs and significant challenges. China burns "nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined," according to a recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Beijing catches so much of the pollution from coal-burning power plants because it sits at the center of a ring of mountains, which help trap the smog. Throw a bunch more cars into the mix, 13 million of them were sold in China last year, according to IHS Automotive and the problems start compounding.
Fixes may be expensive, but the United States has made the compelling case that the costs of enforcing clean air regulations are offset by gains in health and worker productivity. China, which does have some air quality regulations, already seems to be realizing this. The country on Wednesday announced stricter fuel standards that go into effect by the end of 2014 for diesel and 2017 for gas, according to the Financial Times. An environmental official, Wu Xiaoqing, also told state media this week that "China will formulate regulations, standards and policies to reduce air pollutants and control coal burning."
The energy industry estimates it will costs billions for China to meet tougher fuel standards. It may be up to people like the artist Ai Weiwei, who posed in a photo wearing a gas mask, and Chen, the man who's peddling cans of clean air, to ensure that the public and the government see that clean air is worth the cost.
"I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: Don't just chase GDP growth, don't chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren, and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment," Chen told Reuters.
If Chinese leaders don't want to drink air from a can, they should listen.
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