When Beijing’s pollution spikes, so do Chris Buckley’s sales.
“I open my window in the morning and look out, and I can tell how many calls I will get that day,” says Mr Buckley, who sells air purifiers and face masks at his two Torana Clean Air outlets in Beijing.
Pollution may be bad for most people’s health, but it is good for some people’s businesses. China is a growing market for any product that can reduce emissions or their effect on human health, from water treatment contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to face masks that sell for a few cents each.
Smog in China regularly reaches levels deemed unsafe for long-term exposure, and air quality has become a fixation of the upper middle class in Beijing. It has eclipsed other arguably more serious problems – for instance, more than half of the country’s waterways are considered “severely polluted”. One of the toughest problems is the soil pollution that stunts crops and causes high levels of cancer among villagers.
Mr Buckley, a chemist by training and a former lab safety adviser for Procter & Gamble, sold woollen carpets made in Tibet with traditional dyes and modern designs. He added air purifiers to his shops about five years ago. “My staff thought I was nuts but, after a few years, air purifiers started outselling rugs,” he says.
As China gets richer, citizens increase their demands for clean streets, drinkable tap water and fresh, breathable air.
At the same time, wealth is still being created from mines, construction and factories belching fumes, meaning that attempts to address pollution often seem to lag well behind the pollution itself.
Only half of China’s household and industrial waste is treated. New investment barely keeps up with the hundreds of millions of Chinese who are swelling the cities.
In the frigid winter of 2005, a 90km benzene slick flowed down the Songhua river in Manchuria, cutting off drinking water in Chinese and Russian cities. That spill was a turning point. Initially covered up by provincial governments and the petrochemical company that caused it, the spill ultimately led to greater tolerance of environmental reporting, and a much greater allocation of public funds for pollution mitigation.
The Chinese government earmarked Rmb3tn ($492bn) towards environmental protection, carbon reduction and recycling in the five years ending in 2015, up from Rmb1.4tn in the five years before 2010. Half that money was destined for wastewater and solid waste treatment plants, in a sign of the basic problems that still need to be addressed.
It is no accident that one of the biggest Chinese investments into Great Britain is the sovereign wealth fund’s purchase of a 9 per cent stake in Thames Water, a utility that traces its history to the “Great Stink” of Victorian times when the smell of sewage wafted through London. Thames Water offers not only a steady rate of return but also expertise in managing the problems of dense modern cities. The parallel growth of China’s economic might and its pollution problem present an opportunity for companies that offer anything from basic urban services to more specialised technological solutions.
French utility Veolia treats water used by 43m people in 11 Chinese cities. Rival Suez Environnement has plants in five cities. Both companies face competition from Chinese municipal utilities that are developing into water-service companies.
For smaller companies offering higher-tech solutions, government support still makes a big difference, says Liang Qing of Tianjin GoalGen Biotechnology, who ploughs profits from his pharmaceuticals research company into a second business that makes sewage-treatment equipment for toilets at isolated industrial sites.
“Before, as we say in Chinese, it was ‘big thunder, little rain’ – lots of talk but little support. Now there are lots of measures,” says Mr Liang.
“I think it’s reflective of the country’s development. Now that the government has money, it needs to do something about the environment.”
Of course, too much support can have unintended consequences, contributing to the overcapacity that plagues Chinese industry.
Profit margins are so low that factories are reluctant to run emissions reduction equipment. In the environmental realm as well as many other sectors, Chinese local governments like to pick local champions for central government largesse.
Simply earmarking money doesn’t mean environmental goals are met.
In a country where powerful industrial and political interests are often at cross-purposes, and most citizens are still a long way from the quality of life enjoyed in Europe and the US, opportunities to pollute and to make money cleaning up that pollution are likely to be many and varied. Says Mr Buckley: “I still have a couple of decades to sell my air purifiers.”
巴克利表示：“早晨，我推开窗户向外看，就能确定那天我会接到多少电话。”他在北京的图兰纳空气净化公司(Torana Clean Air)有两家门店，出售空气净化器和口罩。
巴克利是一名科班出身的化学家，他以前曾担任宝洁(Procter & Gamble)的实验室安全顾问。他还卖过采用传统方法印染但设计现代的西藏产羊毛地毯。大约5年前，他在店内增加了空气净化器产品。他表示：“我的员工当时认为我很傻，但几年后，空气净化器的销量开始超过地毯。”
中国对英国最大的投资之一是，中国主权财富基金购入公用事业机构泰晤士水务(Thames Water) 9%的股权，这并非偶然。泰晤士水务的历史可以追溯到维多利亚(Victorian)时期的“大恶臭”(Great Stink)，当时下水道的臭味在整个伦敦弥漫。泰晤士水务不仅带来了稳定的回报率，而且还提供了处理人口稠密的现代城市所面临诸多问题的专长。中国经济实力的增长和污染问题的增多，为一些公司带来了机遇，不论它们提供的是基本城市服务，还是更专业的技术解决方案。
天津冠勤生物科技(Tianjin GoalGen Biotechnology)的梁青表示，对于提供高科技解决方案、规模较小的公司而言，政府支持仍发挥着巨大作用。他用他的制药研究公司赚的利润，投资了第二家企业，后者为偏远工业场所卫生间生产下水处理设备。