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How did China's air pollution get this bad?

As more than half of China endures its "dirtiest" spell in history, it seems nowhere is immune from hazardous air. 

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(Image: Alamy)

As air quality hits record lows, the Chinese language has acquired a new word: “meter-busting”. Levels of pollutant PM2.5 have soared so high that monitoring equipment can no longer cope.

Central and eastern China is enveloped by smog. Of 74 Chinese cities which started reporting PM2.5 – fine particulate – levels on New Year’s Day, 33 have taken readings of over 300 micrograms per cubic metre in the two weeks since. Numbers above 300 are considered hazardous to human health.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei triangle in the north of the country is suffering the worst of it. But from Shijiazhuang and Beijing in the north, to Nanjing in the south, via the central city of Wuhan, more than half of China is shrouded in smog.

Under new emergency response measures, Beijing issued its first ever “orange” smog warning, indicating visibility at less than 200 metres. For a time, PM2.5 levels in most parts of the city were over 700 micrograms per cubic metre.

Zhou Rong, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, explained what’s behind the spike: “First of all, the north of China burns coal for heat during winter, leading to more pollution. On top of that, between Thursday and Saturday last week, an inversion layer formed [an atmospheric layer which prevents pollution dispersing], meaning pollution from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei accumulated close to the ground.

“On Friday, pollution from the coal industry in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia blew in, and late on Saturday the same happened with heavy industry and coal-power pollution from southern Hebei.”

Zhou’s verdict was backed up at a Meteorology Bureau press conference held on Monday morning: “Conditions for dispersal were very poor from January 10 to 13. With low pressure at the surface, wind speeds fell, humidity increased and an inversion layer formed, causing pollution to accumulate,” a spokesperson said.

It was as if someone had put a lid on the city.

Regardless of the meteorological conditions, the fact that atmospheric pollutants were able to accumulate and cause problems of such severity and scale offers yet another warning about the state of China’s environment.  

Beijing's air affected by surrounding areas

Beijing has actually done better than most cities on replacing coal with cleaner substitutes. In 2012, the city cut its coal consumption by 700,000 tonnes.

The 2008 Olympics were an effective spur. When it bid for the Games in 2001, the Chinese government promised that air quality would be good. Traffic restriction measures put in place then, and which continue today, gave many hope of seeing more “blue-sky days” ahead.

The data shows that during the Olympics, Beijing’s air quality was consistently up to standard, reaching Class I – the top grade – on 50% of days. This was the best it had been for a decade.

Beijing has some of the strictest vehicle emissions and fuel standards in China. On August 1 last year, cleaner diesel fuel was made available across the city in preparation for the fifth phase of a programme to cut the impacts of car exhausts.

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Just a few years ago, Wang Qishan, then Beijing’s party secretary, would be rushed off his feet when the winter heating season started. Beijing was trying to replace coal-powered heating with natural gas, and it was his job to deal with gas shortages.

It’s a different story today. It took years to get them built, but four gas pipelines from Shaanxi, a province west of Beijing, have reduced the city’s reliance on coal. In early 2012, Beijing’s last four coal-powered power stations were marked for closure. Once their chimneys stop smoking, Beijing will be the first major city in China to have entirely dumped coal in favour of natural gas. Nowhere else is close to doing so.

Coal and cars are the two main sources of air pollution in Beijing, according to the city environmental protection bureau. Coal accounts for 16.7% of all air pollution, and vehicles for 22%. In winter months, the percentage ascribed to coal increases, as more is burned for heating.

In a country where coal-burning is the primary cause of atmospheric pollution, those figures are impressively low. But despite all those efforts, Beijing still finds itself stuck in smog.

The city is implementing an emergency response plan for days of severe pollution, attempting to cut government car journeys and industrial activity by a third, Li Hong, deputy chair of the city’s Economy and Information Technology Commission, told journalists on Monday. Fifty-eight firms have already halted work, Li added.

Speaking the same day, however, Yu Jianhua of the Beijing Atmospheric Environment Management Office said it was impossible to say how effective the emergency measures would be.

One of the difficulties in predicting the impact of the measures is that air pollution is mobile – it respects no boundaries – and Beijing is not isolated from surrounding pollution sources. “Recently, pollution to the south-west, south-east and south of Beijing has been significantly higher than that in the city itself,” explained Zhang Dawei, director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Centre, at a press conference on Monday.

Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, to the west and north of the city, are now two major centres for the coal-chemical industry. Coke refineries here pump out constant fumes. Beijing’s neighbour, Hebei province, meanwhile hosts much of the heavy industry Beijing no longer wants, including metals conglomerate Shougang Steel. The industry relocations once thought to make economic and environmental sense are now mocked.

Local or regional efforts to keep the air clean are of little use for a simple reason: air moves.

Joint efforts yet to take effect

The January smog has sounded a warning about China’s attempts to deal with air pollution along administrative borders.

Ten years ago, in line with regulations on controlling air pollution, the State Environmental Protection Agency (which later became the Ministry of Environmental Protection) identified 113 key cities as focus areas for preventing atmospheric pollution. The list was approved by the State Council, China’s highest administrative body.

As this year’s smog rolled in, the Ministry of Environmental Protection was drawing on US experience to design a regionally based system that would identify cities meeting standards, and those not, and include a rolling programme of implementation and regular evaluations. But the most recent facts show that air pollution requires a macro solution. Policies and mechanisms need to be all-encompassing to succeed.

In 2001, in hope of winning the right to hold the Olympic Games, Beijing came up with a joint plan with the surrounding governments of Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi. Some energy-hungry firms were to be partially or completely shut down, coal pollution tackled and sulphur and nitrogen-oxide scrubbing at power plants improved. With a successful Beijing Olympics as a goal, the results were excellent.

There have been other “joint” efforts. In 2010, eight ministries and commissions launched a coordinated attack on air pollution. And two years later, in December last year, the 12th Five Year Plan on Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution in Key Regions was released by three arms of government: the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Ministry of Finance and the National Reform and Development Commission.

But not everyone is convinced that these joint assaults are working. Zhao Lijian, environmental management programme officer at the Energy Foundation, said effective action has so far been stymied by poor regional coordination: “Joint prevention requires information sharing and joint action. The MEP’s Environmental Protection Supervision Centres could take a coordinating role, but this has not been made part of their remit."

And in the short term, there is a chance of yet more smog, said Zhao. Other cities besides Beijing should come up with their own emergency response plans. But actually solving the problem will require wider emissions-reduction policies.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Robert Emmet Hernan

What Beijing is experiencing is similar to what happened in London 1952 when a temperature inversion combined with emissions from domestic coal fires to kill over 4,000 people, including many young and old people. The story is told in my book on environmental disasters, This Borrowed Earth, published in English and in Chinese by China Machine Press.



Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Robert Emmet Hernan写的《This Borrowed Earth》有中文译本,由机械工业出版社发行的《借来的地球》。其中一章“英国伦敦雾”讲述了类似雾霾天气造成的市民疾病死伤。

Environmental Protection Book: This Borrowed Earth

This Borrowed Earth, by Robert Emmet Hernan, has been published in English and in Chinese by China Machine Press. It tells the story about the injury to and death of citizens caused by "London's great smog".

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






A new way to reduce air pollution!

Plant extremely fast growing forests to sharply reduce air pollution.

See details at http://www.adamsmithtoday.com/an-australian-solution-to-the-co2-problem.

It could readily be tried in China.

Water might be supplied by air wells instead of desalination.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Air polluted in China

How did China get air polluted in the first place?
Did it happen because there were so many cars and there is gas in the air mixing with the chemicals from factories, or is it from the black smoke from the factories.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Why is China so air polluted?

How can the environment in China go from clear to so air polluted

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

A Director of the Candain Clean Air Alliance

The most dangerous source of pollution is a neighbour burning coal or wood. It would be useful to have data from a home with a coal burning neighbour. In Britain during the industrial revolution when smoke blackened the skies, the main exposure to pollution was from home fires as the pollutants are released at the level where people are living while pollution from factories is released at a higher level. It would be interesting to have some data. In Fairbanks, Alaska, America pollution levels can reach Beijing levels even though the only sources of pollutants are homes where residents are burning wood or coal. In Canada with the new pocket monitors such as the PurpleAir model, residents with wood burning neighbours are finding that they are being exposed to levels equal to those in Beijing at least at times..

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


So, factories in the USA have limestone rollers and other things that reduce air pollution. Even as the particulate matter is being pumped into the air, the factories have devices to keep that pollution out of the air. In the States, we've been told that "the Chinese don't care, they don't want to hurt industry with regulations and additional expenses." Is that true? Are there individual houses that have coal-burning stoves? Also, is it "bad" coal, that is low-density and is a less clean-burning fuel than what is burned in the States?

I've heard nothing about planting more trees to keep the air clean in China. Does Beijing have plenty of trees?