Chinese President Attends Climate Change Summit while Chinese Citizens Deal with Record Pollution

As Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed carbon emissions with world leaders at the U.N. Climate Change Summit on Monday, millions of his citizens were suffering the worst air pollution of the year.

In the city of Baoding, the air-quality index rose beyond 700, which is far past the hazardous level. Residents reported being engulfed by thick fog.

“Most days are like this, especially in winter, and we have become accustomed to it,” said Baoding-based taxi driver Kang Zhuang, during an interview with NBC News. “We don’t know where the polluted air comes from. Sometimes I cough on polluted days, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

China leads the world in carbon pollution. According to the World Bank, it emitted 11 tons of carbon pollutants in 2013 or almost twice as much as the U.S., which released 5.8 billion tons. Together, both countries account for about 40 percent of the planet’s total green-house gas emissions.

During the summit, Xi maintained that China is looking to cap the carbon emission by 2030. So far, China is also leading the world in clean-energy investments.

Seven years, ago Baoding launched a “low-carbon” initiative after being classified as China’s most polluted city. It’s now home to the world’s largest solar-panel manufacturer, and renewable energy now accounts for one-fifth of its economic output as the government plans to raise that percentage to 50.

The program targeted several pollutant-emitting factories, but experts say Baoding needs to widen its scope toward vital economic interests such as steel and cement factories, as well as the city’s car-manufacturing industry if it expects to make any real progress.

The balance between economic and environmental stability will be crucial if China intends to make on its promises.

“The government has shut down many factories but the air is still bad,” Kang said. “Who knows if it will get better?”

Some argue China has no choice but to make it better for people.

Professor Zhang Zhongxiang, an expert on environmental economics and carbon trading, told NBC News that worsening environmental conditions could lead to “disaster” and “social unrest.”

“Pollution already has long-term impact on public health,” Zhang said. “High economic growth will have little meaning if everybody is suffering from hazardous air every day.”

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