x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

I've just come back from China - wheezing

I returned from Beijing a few days ago with a suitcase full of Olympic memorabilia, fresh green and jasmine tea, and a hand-painted teal-green China tea set for Mommy Dearest

I returned from Beijing a few days ago with a suitcase full of Olympic memorabilia, fresh green and jasmine tea, and a hand-painted teal-green China tea set for Mommy Dearest. One souvenir I did not pack in my luggage, and did not really pay for - though I am now - was an unpleasant case of acute bronchitis, and the unwelcome return of my childhood asthma. Somehow, despite the two Beijing guidebooks I purchased a few days before my departure, and the printout of my eight-day itinerary sent by a college friend, I missed the warnings about China's dismal record on pollution. I was probably too busy psyching myself up for my first trip to an East Asian country, and a reunion with Amanda, my college roommate, to realise that packing a face mask would have been a very good idea.

And while my eight-day visit to a land that is home to the earliest centres of human civilisation - with cultures that date back at least six millennia - provided my mind with some much-needed nourishment, the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gases and home to 16 of the 20 most air polluted cities, also provided my lungs with an unhealthy dose of smog, soot, and a serious appreciation for clean air.

My lungs were not alone in acknowledging the serious problem however. The host of this year's Olympics has already spent a whopping 140 billion yuan (the equivalent of 74 billion dirhams) on environmental improvements over the past few years, in an effort to provide the competing athletes with breathable air for its supposedly "Green Olympics". The task has not been easy though, as China has found out; after all, reversing environmental damage is very much harder than creating it. China has needed to resort to serious measures in order to fight its degenerating air quality; catalytic converters have been installed ahead of the Games that start in just a month's time, and a plan is already in place for temporary closures of the most polluting factories, and even limiting personal car usage in the next few weeks.

And while China's efforts to combat its inconvenient truth are laudable, clean air is not only a prerequisite for record-breaking endurance athletes but for the survival of the indigenous population. In China's 14 largest cities alone, air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 50,000 newborns each year. Furthermore, two-thirds of the world's 800,000 premature deaths caused as a result of air pollution occur in Asia. The extent of the China's pollution can be seen through the naked eye, Not once during my stay in the country did I witness a "clear sky" day. The cloak of black smog that enveloped the capital not only ruined each and ever photo-opportunities, including my hike along the Great Wall. But it was only later, when the bronchial spasms began, that I realized I had more to worry than my pictures from China being marred with grey skies and smog. And while my wheezing is not as bad as it was when I first returned to Abu Dhabi (thanks, partly, to my Ventolin inhaler), I began to appreciate the new green initiatives and environmental awareness campaigns that have been happening in my own country. Oil has been our greatest national asset and has allowed us -Emiratis and expats alike- to live comfortable, if not extravagant, lives. Our GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world as a result, but we must not allow our greatest asset to become our greatest burden. Our love for excess, from gas-guzzling SUVs to our cavalier attitudes towards water and electricity usage, has already been catching up with us. The United Arab Emirates is now among the highest greenhouse gas emitters per capita in the world. Government-led initiatives such as Masdar's multi billion alternative energy project are a positive step in securing a clean future for the next generation; however, it is our duty, as responsible citizens, to contribute as well. We have been blessed with beautiful beaches, and all-round sunny weather (albeit sometimes uncomfortably sunny at this time of year), but I am sure that we do not want to end up counting how many clear sky we will be enjoying in the near future. Beijing is boasting that it has managed to increase its "blue sky days" -when smog levels are lower than average- to 240 days. But that still leaves four months a year with no sight of the sky: do we really want that here? "One World, One Dream" is the slogan for this year's Olympics. However, with the return of my asthmatic symptoms thanks to the serious levels of pollution in China, I am beginning to wonder if it is too late to consider a slogan change. What one country emits ends up in the atmosphere of the planet we all share. "One World, One Sky" might be more appropriate.