Can One Video Save China’s Environment?

Will Under the Dome, the 104-minute air pollution documentary that became an Internet sensation in China over the weekend, be a turning point for the country’s environmental movement? More than two hundred million Chinese have already watched the film by Chai Jing, a former CCTV reporter who launched her research project after her baby was born with a benign tumor. She worried that pollution was the culprit, and decided to get to the bottom of how bad the problem is in China. The film sparked a flurry of commentary and praise for her courageous reporting. “History is created when individuals stand up to take action,” Chai says in the film.

The video may help the Chinese government’s efforts to clean up China’s polluted air, water and soil, and to curtail carbon emissions, as well. China’s heaviest polluters have been pushing back against anti-pollution measures, arguing that cutting pollution will mean lost jobs—and potential labor unrest. But Chen Jining, the newly appointed minister of environmental protection, praised the film, comparing it to “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book that is often cited as inspiring the environmental movement in the United States.

The new documentary highlights economic structural issues that contribute to high emissions, including explicit and implicit subsidies that distort investment and direct resources toward heavy energy-intensive industries like steel. The Paulson Institute’s Climate Change and Air Quality Program has launched an initiative to help the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region to maintain economic growth and employment while cutting both pollution and carbon emissions. (A recent Paulson Institute paper highlights that efforts to reduce air pollution—such as sulfur dioxide scrubbers at coal-fired power plants—are doing little if nothing to cut back on carbon emissions.) By building a groundswell of outrage against pollution, Under the Dome could create additional public support for policies that redress the imbalances in China’s economy and tougher enforcement of environmental laws and policies.