By Minxin Pei
FORTUNE -- For a long time, environmental activists, economists, and China scholars have warned about the coming environmental disaster in China. Such a catastrophe finally appeared in the most dramatic form in mid-January, when a thick layer of poisonous pollutants smothered much of northern China and made air in Beijing hazardous to breathe.
For the Chinese government, this was merely one of many wake-up calls. The question on everyone's mind is whether Beijing will finally muster the political will to implement policies to avert an ecological calamity that will almost certainly spell the end of the Chinese economic miracle and potentially lead to the fall of the Communist Party itself.
Judging by the numbers, the scope of China's environmental degradation is beyond shocking. Consider:
Given decades of environmental neglect and China's heavy reliance on coal -- which produces 70% of the country's energy -- it would be difficult to produce a dramatic improvement quickly. Nevertheless, the Chinese government can take a comprehensive approach to environmental protection by adopting tougher environmental standards, changing their economic policy, increasing investment in the environment, and mobilizing the press and civil society to take part in these efforts.
Retrofitting the country's coal-fired power plants with modern pollution control technology should cut down the emission of harmful particulates significantly. Adopting a higher clean-fuel standard for cars and other vehicles, which now contribute to the bulk of urban pollution, will almost certainly make a difference. Gasoline and diesel used in Chinese have much higher sulfur content than the fuel used in the West. And if authorities in China took enforcement of existing environmental regulations more seriously, they could also make a huge impact, as local authorities and Chinese companies routinely violate such rules to cut costs. More
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