Does China Have The Ingenuity to Solve Environmental Problems?

There’s one reason why all of the environmental ills we face—climate change, poor drinking water, polluted streams—don’t always keep me awake at night. As I see it, the worse things get, the more incentive there is for some innovator to figure out a solution. Eventually, when the problems become intolerable to a critical mass of people, someone will figure out how to solve them.

Look at China, a country where air pollution in some cities has hit 20 times healthy limits. The World Health Organization advises that small particulates called PM2.5 not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This week, it was measured at 526. That’s the cost of rapid industrialization, apparently.

But now, a Chinese millionaire named Chen Guangbiao has a solution: Cans of clean air for distant places.

For 5 yuan (about 80 cents), you can briefly escape clogged, smoggy Beijing for a few breaths of air from the mountains of Nepal. Chen has developed three “flavors” of air, including pristine Tibet, post-industrial Taiwan and revolutionary Yan’an, a city in Central China.

Certainly there are some clear drawbacks of the plan. For one, it’s not compressed air, so a can slightly bigger than a can of Coke would get you, Chen claims, about three solid breaths. It’s also obvious that three breaths of even the purest air on the planet wouldn’t reverse the impacts of breathing years of thick pollution. (Also, who’s to say that Tibetan mountain air is so pure?) And certainly the cost of creating cans and shipping them far distances produces even more pollution.

But I do salute the idea. Because rather than lobby the Chinese government to address out-of-control pollution (fat chance) or wait until world leaders agree on a plan to reduce global emissions (even fatter), at least this man is doing something.

It’s a hokey idea. It won’t really solve any problem. But it shows the kind of ingenuity based on the country’s growing spirit of capitalism that countries, especially like China, will need to be able to confront even bigger environmental problems of the future.

Changing Planet