While China's economic flowering might be benefiting millions of people, it is also degrading their quality of life. The European Space Agency released satellite data last week showing that the air in the Chinese capital Beijing and its neighboring provinces contains the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the world. Analysts estimate that such elevated pollution levels probably account for 400,000 premature deaths in the region every year.
Most of the nitrogen dioxide is coming out of cars" tailpipes. Over just the last five years, the number of cars on the streets of Beijing alone has doubled to 2.5 million. Planners expect another 500,000 cars to be added to the total—and air quality to continue to worsen accordingly—by the time the city hosts the 2008 Olympics.
Environmental and public health advocates from other parts of the world are optimistic that worsening environmental conditions in Chinese cities will spur an already embryonic conservation movement in the world's most populous country. Indeed, recent protests there have focused on health concerns about chemical factory emissions. But with environmental concerns no match for consumer lust in other parts of the world, China's new drivers are unlikely to turn over their keys anytime soon.