Air Pollution Attacks Beijing Again

A general view of the central business district during severe pollution on January 18, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

It’s unusual when a documentary film on air pollution becomes a blockbuster hit, but that’s exactly what’s happened with “Under the Dome,” a film produced about energy and environmental issues in China. Released online on Saturday, the 100-minute film has already racked up more than 150 million views on Youku, China’s YouTube equivalent. That’s equal to about 10% of the Chinese population.

The movie takes a critical look at the effects of unfettered economic growth and a lack of strong environmental protection. Produced by Chai Jing, a former journalist for the state-run CCTV station, the Ted talk-style film weaves investigative journalism, short animated clips and compelling personal stories into a strong narrative. Ms. Chai begins by telling an audience about her own journey; how she was not particularly concerned with air pollution until she found out she was pregnant and her unborn baby was diagnosed with a tumor. At that point, her world changed. Ms. Jing asks how her baby is supposed to breath, eat and drink in China, when each of those essential actions will introduce harmful pollutants into her system.

The movie is being compared to the book “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work in the U.S. on environmental issues back in the 1960s. Carson’s book is widely recognized as a main catalyst for the U.S. environmental movement. The attention surrounding “Under the Dome” could have a lasting impact on a society already fed up with smoggy skies, high pollution days, and keeping vulnerable populations (children and old people) indoors on days when the PM 2.5 index (a measure of particulate matter that is small enough to infest human lungs) skyrockets. In the movie, Ms. Chai ponders how she will respond when her daughter asks why she is locked inside her home some days. In another vivid scene, Ms. Chai interviews a little girl who says she’s never seen the stars and has only seen blue sky “a little bit.”

Severe Air Pollution Continuous In Beijing

A general view of Beijing city during severe pollution on January 30, 2013 in Beijing, China. The fourth round of heavy smog to hit Beijing in one month has sent more people to the hospital with respiratory illnesses and prompted calls for legislation to curb pollution. The haze choking many Chinese cities covers a total area of 1.3 million square kilometers, the China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said Tuesday. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

“The video has galvanized public opinion to take action on air pollution, and we think that this could tip the scales in favor of really strengthening environmental laws and using them to ensure that existing emission standards are actually enforced in industry and transportation, and also transitioning to cleaner energy,” Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director at environmental group the National Resources Defense Council told Breaking Energy via email.

The movie came out a week before meetings of China’s national legislature – a highly anticipated and public political event. While air pollution has been on the government’s radar as a key issue, this is likely to bring it to the forefront of discussions. “Chai Jing also clearly highlighted the important role of pollution information transparency and public supervision of polluters to hold them, and the government, accountable,” Lin added.

Beyond the personal stories, Ms. Chai criticizes state run enterprises for their failure to protect society. She interviews government officials, oil companies and scholars to paint a picture of a darkening China. “‘Under the Dome’ spelled out very clearly the root causes for China’s air pollution problem in a way that no media report had ever done before: China’s massive dependence on coal and oil, how dirty these fuels are, and the lack of enforcement of emissions standards. She also pointed to the relative lack of power and resources of China’s environmental authorities compared to industry,” said Lin.

Ms. Chai points out that growth has given so many Chinese, her included, the opportunity to move to big cities and pursue their dreams. But she asks what will happen if China’s method of growth – leaning heavily on industrialization fueled by coal-fired power plants – goes unchecked.  The answer: “The haze has just begun. Congestion has just begun.”

The movie “Under the Dome” is in Chinese, but a crowd-sourced translation process is underway. Watch the movie (partially translated) here.