VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Does China Have The Ingenuity to Solve Environmental Problems?

There’s one reason why all of the environmental ills we face—climate change, poor drinking water, polluted streams—don’t always keep me awake at night. As I see it, the worse things get, the more incentive there is for some innovator to figure out a solution. Eventually, when the problems become intolerable to a critical mass of people, someone will figure out how to solve them.

Look at China, a country where air pollution in some cities has hit 20 times healthy limits. The World Health Organization advises that small particulates called PM2.5 not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This week, it was measured at 526. That’s the cost of rapid industrialization, apparently.

But now, a Chinese millionaire named Chen Guangbiao has a solution: Cans of clean air for distant places.

For 5 yuan (about 80 cents), you can briefly escape clogged, smoggy Beijing for a few breaths of air from the mountains of Nepal. Chen has developed three “flavors” of air, including pristine Tibet, post-industrial Taiwan and revolutionary Yan’an, a city in Central China.

Certainly there are some clear drawbacks of the plan. For one, it’s not compressed air, so a can slightly bigger than a can of Coke would get you, Chen claims, about three solid breaths. It’s also obvious that three breaths of even the purest air on the planet wouldn’t reverse the impacts of breathing years of thick pollution. (Also, who’s to say that Tibetan mountain air is so pure?) And certainly the cost of creating cans and shipping them far distances produces even more pollution.

But I do salute the idea. Because rather than lobby the Chinese government to address out-of-control pollution (fat chance) or wait until world leaders agree on a plan to reduce global emissions (even fatter), at least this man is doing something.

It’s a hokey idea. It won’t really solve any problem. But it shows the kind of ingenuity based on the country’s growing spirit of capitalism that countries, especially like China, will need to be able to confront even bigger environmental problems of the future.


  1. stuart
    new westminster
    February 7, 2013, 1:23 pm

    they should make SMOG BEER and export it.

  2. Pilipo
    February 2, 2013, 4:48 am

    SOLUTION?…for me its a nightmare. I remember the episodes of ¨Captain planet and planeteers´ (that i watched when in my childhood) where the idea of air packed cans was the terminal stage of an incompatible for life polluted environment . So sad to think this is innovation when its a sign of resignation..

  3. R. Lin
    February 2, 2013, 2:33 am

    DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH ENERGY IT COSTS (energy and CO2 emissions) TO PRODUCE A CAN??????? It is already ridiculous and NOT cost-efficient (environmentally) to use cans for soda-pops or whatever beverages that come in it. Now they use it for AIR??? Help us, God.

  4. Lindsey
    January 30, 2013, 3:35 pm

    This man literally stole an idea from the movie The Lorax. Every bit of his plan. This is not “doing something”…it’s doing nothing!

  5. Jim
    Littlehampton, South Australia
    January 30, 2013, 3:22 am

    i have visited China many times for work… The pollution is slowly getting worse. It’s similar to a frog in a pot of water slowly reaching boiling temp. I do agree with Dan, if greed gets environmental benefits so be it! It might actually be the only way to get this greedy self absorbed, human culture the help it needs. This poor planet needs every piece of help it can 🙁 industrial revolution has been both the best and worse things in human history.

  6. George
    Columbia, SC
    January 30, 2013, 12:03 am

    The US should impose the same environmental standards of manufacturing on imported goods as we require on American manufacturers. When Americans purchase “cheap” products from foreign countries that do not participate in environmental stewardship, we as Americans, are just as complicate as the offending foreign manufacturer. All of us on this earth are in the same lifeboat.

  7. lifeform
    January 29, 2013, 11:30 pm

    “It’s my dream. A world where all will be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.”
    — Clov, a character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame”.

  8. Bob
    January 29, 2013, 11:02 pm

    President Skroob’s idea isn’t so bad.

  9. Lora
    New England
    January 29, 2013, 10:39 pm

    The *spirit of capitalism* is likely to get China somewhere, but solving its environmental problems–not . . .

  10. eirec bleire
    January 29, 2013, 10:26 pm

    Either the writer is cynical & or comedy challenged ( It’s not really clever, bright or original as a joke). Either way it falls flat as entertainment. Selfish pointless novelty items for an easy buck that actually adds to the problem the product “addresses” is sort of depressing and typical of mindless capitalism and consumerism. I like funny- not stupid profiteering presented as clever or encouraging apart from a crass cynical love for cash.

  11. Paul Heikkila
    New York
    January 29, 2013, 10:18 pm

    This is one of the least informative pieces I’ve ever read.

  12. Derek
    January 29, 2013, 10:15 pm

    What’s this world coming to…?
    I guess the Chinese millionaire who probably watched Dr Seuss’ Lorax didn’t realize the same deceitful plan used by cartoonish millionaire in the movie was a metaphor? How is this selfish plan any better than any other policies? The government will continue to move at turtle speed until their own interests or lives are on the line… Sad how this world works…

  13. redlite
    January 29, 2013, 10:13 pm

    This massive pollution affects the whole of the global ecosystem. Environmental collapse is right at our doorstep. Are you ready for back to back storms like Hurricane Sandy? Infrastructure damage to major cities that eat away at the base and bring down all the high rises? Millions of people displaced. The final melting of the arctic ice cap and Greenland is a reality. The seas will have no mercy. I hope I’m wrong. As long as we consume mindlessly and on automatic without questioning what it is we do to the earth, the devastation of our environment will continue. And nothing is being done.

  14. OlNGrumpy
    January 29, 2013, 10:08 pm

    The real genius is to pollute even more, and then have people dependent on whoever sells clean air (in a bottle), like US is dependent on Chinese manufacturing.

  15. Eric
    January 29, 2013, 10:05 pm

    This article is symptomatic of the larger problem, which is that there is a huge number of “environmentalists” who would rather “raise awareness” than take on the much harder challenge of engineering solutions. Yes, someone else will eventually solve these problems, but it won’t be Dan Stone or the others like him. It will be the few that actually take the time to truly understand how the world works and how solutions are devised.

  16. spencer
    Los Angeles, CA
    January 29, 2013, 10:04 pm

    ‘Doing something’ is often worse than doing nothing at all and considering the scope and urgency of our ecological dilema any sugar coating of the issues is a misused opportunity.
    Serious times call for serious commentary. How about an article on the e good folk fighting the XL pipeline expansion. Canned air … Exactly

  17. Scott Campbell
    January 29, 2013, 10:02 pm

    We all breath the same air eventually. It is mixed and
    diluted with the whole planets air just like the ocean. We
    all need to control air pollution

  18. Joe
    January 29, 2013, 9:56 pm

    Just two weeks ago on Sunday I landed in Beijing in what was then the worst smog ever. I have to admit I too couldn’t help but think of the Lorax movie and probably would have even thought about purchasing a can it was soo bad. Every person I met in China talked about how bad the air was at that time – it was a real (bad) novelty. It is sad to think it may not be such a one time event. As one physician I met remarked “how could anybody survive if it was”? As rediculous as canned air is there should be no denying that without change they certainly face a humanitarian crisis on levels never seen before.

  19. jimmy
    United States
    January 29, 2013, 9:56 pm

    when things get intolerable people just die. The pollution comes from burning 3 billion tons of coal year. They have no other choice. There is no substitue for price and energy density of coal espessialy when they can use the atmosphere for a free sewer. inovation isn’t magic. this article is just happy magical thinking. “Don’t worry kids, someone some where will think of some thing and everything will just fine!!! “

  20. monkey shoes
    January 29, 2013, 9:34 pm

    Well Dan you sure do have an optimistic outlook on capitalism! It solves so many problems and has no problems!

    Like a monetary caste system and the development of planned obsolescence and payday loans. How about deregulation and CDO’s and Oil sands (that’s a great idea let’s use all the fresh water we can find to clean dirt out of this precious, precious oil). Remember if we melt all the iceburgs we can dig for more oil at the poles! What could possibly go wrong?

    But sure. Let’s be optimistic. Capitalism is just so wonderful it will save us from pollution with canned air. Oh how marvelous. What will they think of next?

  21. val
    January 29, 2013, 9:18 pm

    Solving this pollution problems will work when Chinese government stop taking bribery. Which will never happen! Most third world country have little or no concern about the environment. The information are not available in classroom to libraries…especially China, government only want people to know what they want them to know. Internet, newspaper and social media are closely monitor by the government watchdogs. Hopefully some serious action going to take place to fix this problem or they going to have pollution-population control.

  22. cal
    January 29, 2013, 9:09 pm

    let them pollute all they want its there country we as americans can help them pollute more by purchasing stuff made in china eventually china will need all the profits it keeps to clean there own air and if they try to make companies there pay for it they will just move to the next country without epa standards. BE AMERICAN KEEP CONSUMING STUFF MADE IN CHINA LET THEM KILL THEMSELVES

  23. Juan Alger P.
    January 29, 2013, 8:39 pm

    It’s an imposible mission for China to achieve the level of prosperity that a country like United States, has. Just think. If with only 300 million inhabitants USA faces severe enviromental problems, imagine the kind of enviromental nightmare unleashed by a burden of 1,200 million people.

  24. Ray
    Los Angeles
    January 29, 2013, 8:04 pm

    If you have a population of over a billion people. Life is expendable. if China want to expedite the process just have a war with India. They both got over a billion people each.

  25. Austin
    January 29, 2013, 7:59 pm

    I dislike the idea of turning what used to be a plentiful commodity – clean air – into a product. The closest example of this is obviously bottled water, and in the end, it ultimately pollutes and wastes instead of solving any problems.

    Environmental issues are generally a ‘tragedy of the commons’ issue. Fouling the air doesn’t impact the individuals who do it, but society as a whole suffers. The Chinese government needs to make it painful for individual polluters (i.e. taxes, regulation) to do what they’re doing, just as the West has. Research, development, and even Chinese innovators may help solve the problem, but not until there’s incentive for polluters to change at an individual level.

  26. Maha
    San Francisco
    January 29, 2013, 7:34 pm

    I look forward to sharing this article with my daughter. She is already very aware of how ridiculous human beings can be. Honestly, if this man really “stole” from a Dr Suess film, then there truly is not hope for humanity. Although I commend him for “doing something”, I’d rather have someone do something that is not a complete joke! This is a serious matter. Politics and greed aside, people are dying from this ridiculousness. YES! I said ridiculousness.

  27. Andy
    January 29, 2013, 7:25 pm

    Knowing how many of the companies in China operate, the air was probably canned a few blocks away from where it was sold.

  28. Steve
    January 29, 2013, 7:23 pm

    It sounds like a great way to generate more pollution, this time in the form of trash.

  29. Art
    January 29, 2013, 6:58 pm

    Just returned from Mexico. Like most of the world, Mexico only “treats” the water you drink. Why spend the money for pure water to wash your car or water your lawn? Instead, go to the local market and buy your drinking water in small plastic bottles.

    Why doesn’t China do that with their air? Rather than put pollution controls on factory smokestacks, instead sell home air purifiers and a portable type that can be carried in a backpack?

    Boeing has lots of surplus lithium batteries for lightweight power….

  30. Art
    January 29, 2013, 6:52 pm

    China has always had an over population problem. They solve this by limiting the number of children and ENCOURAGING smoking. I guess cancer beats starvation.

    So what if half die? That still leaves about 1 billion.

    The “innovation” I would expect to see is massive sales of electrostatic air filters for homes.

  31. Scott Cowart
    January 29, 2013, 6:49 pm

    and you thought buying china-made products were a bad idea, not!

  32. Clean air
    United States
    January 29, 2013, 6:48 pm

    Perhaps discouraging private transportation wud help, that wud mean GM profit drop

  33. Nick
    New York
    January 29, 2013, 6:47 pm

    From someone who has traveled to China on business for 20 years- how are you going to stop the pollution of the worlds manufacturing factory as a country? You are kidding right?

  34. Michael Sean
    January 29, 2013, 6:47 pm

    And to think that they reached this level of pollution without any major input from Limbaugh or the Koch Brothers. I guess right wing thinking knows no borders.

  35. Zachariah
    January 29, 2013, 6:03 pm

    This is a very old product. My old man had a can of rocky mountain air as a souvenir twenty years ago. It doesn’t even address the specific issues of pollution, it’s just a dumb gimmick.

    Why don’t we have this level of pollution in the US? Environmental regulations imposed by the government make it too expensive to pollute like this. Unless you start making it expensive to pollute, there will be no incentive to not pollute. Especially since it is so much easier to just dump waste where you make it.

    Time delayed and externalized environmental costs are the biggest limitation of ‘pure’ market economies. It’s also why no pure market economies exist or should ever exist.

  36. Dan Stone
    January 29, 2013, 5:45 pm

    Some energetic comments here, thanks everyone. What this idea represents isn’t a stroke of genius. Far from it. It shows that there’s a culture of innovation brewing in China that wants to make money off the country’s environmental problems. Is it greed? Perhaps. But in a these early stages of capitalism where financial incentive drives innovation, greed might actually be helpful.

  37. Buck
    January 29, 2013, 5:43 pm

    The only solution that the Chinese will come up with is whatever they can steal from the USA or Europe.

  38. BK
    January 29, 2013, 5:33 pm

    You see this as a sign of hope for the future? I understand the product is probably more of a novelty than anything else, but the fact that someone is trying to sell breaths of unpolluted air sounds cartoonishly gloomy to me.

  39. Eric S
    January 29, 2013, 5:31 pm

    China…. It is like the peeing section in the pool.

  40. Matt
    January 29, 2013, 5:30 pm

    “But it shows the kind of ingenuity based on the country’s growing spirit of capitalism that countries”

    Seriously? Your not laughing at this idea? From Spaceballs to The Lorax (movie), this idea is a joke, and purely based on greed.

  41. John Pfeffer
    Wimberley, TX
    January 29, 2013, 5:28 pm

    Wait until China starts getting the medical bills, deaths, and lost work hours.

  42. Paul Heinzman
    United States
    January 29, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Cans of fresh air, won’t that just add to the pollution to have to make the cans and compress the air into the cans. This sounds poor to me.

  43. Manuel
    Los Angeles
    January 29, 2013, 5:25 pm

    “at least this man is doing something?” lol