Black Cloud Over Beijing
Image Credit: Flickr (Kevin Dooley)

Black Cloud Over Beijing


Beijing— Air pollution in China's capital city reached record levels over the weekend. According to the U.S. Embassy twitter @BeijingAir, at 8pm on Saturday PM 2.5 readings surged to 886 µg/m3, exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s highest grading of "hazardous" which is anything between 301-500, and far beyond the level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization, which is a 25 µg/m3 mean over a 24 hour period.

The fact that many Chinese cities, not just Beijing, suffer terrible air pollution is common knowledge. And every day there are millions of people in the country who step out their door and see a heavy blanket of smog with their own two eyes. But how do you explain why the vast majority of these same citizens walk the streets, ride their bicycles and carry on their day without protection (such as an N95 face mask)?

Seeing is different than understanding, and that is the critical shift we are slowly beginning to witness in China.

It has never been easy to cloak the air pollution problem in China – unlike the host of other environmental concerns that are so easily exported out into the countryside. But until recently that public knowledge has been skin deep. Building a detailed picture of just how severe the pollution is and the impacts it is having on the country is a critical step for those trying to amass the momentum required to push for change.

Last month Greenpeace, along with Peking University's School of Public Health, contributed to this public understanding of the country's air pollution problem with a new study that measures the human health and economic impact on China's largest cities. It found that last year an estimated 8,572 premature deaths in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Beijing could be linked to PM2.5 air pollution. And in the same period these cities suffered a combined total of U.S.$1.08 billion in economic loss.

This follows a year in which we have seen the Chinese government finally begin releasing PM2.5 data for more and more cities, and from more and more stations within these cities. Such a long sought after change represents a significant step in the fight to solve China's air pollution problems. Not only does particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter pose a serious health hazard, it is most prevalent in the combustion of coal – which makes up 70% of the country's energy mix, and was therefore a large chunk of data missing from the government's air quality readings.

An earlier report in May from Greenpeace ranked economically important Chinese cities by actions provincial governments had taken to solve their respective air pollution issues. Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Zhou Rong explained to me why such reports are so important. "The Chinese public has had to pay for the air pollution with their health for many years now," she said. "The only way we can argue for an end to this unfair trade, and push for changes in government policies, is to bring to the table hard evidence and precise numbers of the damage being done."

She points out that this new report sheds light on just a few pieces of the puzzles, and that more data will help clear the haze – so to speak – currently obscuring understanding of the severity of this issue. "Because of the limited data available, we were only able to calculate acute death numbers in limited cities. But a full picture of the real health loss should include chronic death and disease, which would be much bigger than the acute death numbers," says Zhou.

The report also calculates the potential savings on national health care costs should there be an improvement of air pollution levels. For example in 2012 Beijing experienced a loss of U.S. $328 million due to PM2.5 pollution. But U.S. $283 million of this could have been saved had it reached air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Add Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou and the savings would have come to an incredible U.S. $868 million.

Of course, building public knowledge and mounting pressure on the government is just the beginning. Next comes the hard work – actually implementing the changes that will lead to clean, safe air. To that end, the latest report also includes policy recommendations such as capping regional coal consumption, De-NOx retrofiting for existing coal-fired power plants, and shutting down inefficient coal-fired industrial boilers.

Still, Zhou says success will require regional governments to announce clear timelines for the improvement of air quality and detailed action plants. This is something that, with the exceptions of Beijing and Tianjin, we've seen few cities carry out.

Although the country is walking a long, hard road before it reaches the land of crisp, clean, blue skies, Zhou is cautiously optimistic about the future. "Particularly on information disclosure, we've seen in recent times the public, media and NGOs come together to demand transparency, which has really triggered a big change. But we've also noticed that when it comes to the real health impacts of air pollution, the Chinese public has very limited knowledge. Only once there's real understanding of how harmful air pollution is, can concern turn into pressure and momentum to make real change."

Monica Tan is a writer and Beijing-based web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. The views expressed in this article reflect those of Greenpeace.

February 5, 2013 at 14:27

This is a very good point, but until there is a proper way to dispose of these batteries, they do just as much harm as good just over a long period of time.  But low emission engines are definitely a better alternative to all the old recycled cars they're using now.

Kim's Uncle
January 30, 2013 at 07:31

With all this unchecked pollution how many Chinese babies will be born with serious birth defects? Does this sound like a superpower? More like super filthy!

Chop Suey!
January 18, 2013 at 15:52

10~20% of Air polution from China will reach the West Coast. Good luck, America!

January 18, 2013 at 02:41

I have said for a long time that China must mandate all electric cars and power them with fuel cells or batteries.  China has millions of tons of lithium to make hundreds of millions of batteries to power hundreds of millions of cars.  Fuel cells can also power hundreds of millions of cars.  Together, China can have non-polluting cars for all people.  Electricity can be generated from hydroelectricity, solar, wind and nuclear power.  China has discovered enough uranium to power 1,000 nuclear power plants with breeder reactors for hundreds of years.  China also might have huge deposit of thorium that can also be bred into fissile materials to provide even more nuclear fuels.  China already has advanced technologies for electric cars powered by lithium batteries.  Unfortunately, the Chinese government policies have not been urgently supporting the development of electric cars.  What the new team of leaders now must do is to ban all foreign cars, accelerate the R&D of electric cars in both fuel cell and battery technologies.  China gradually phase out all gasoline cars within 20 years.  First Chinese car makers should stop making any gasoline engine cars by 2020 and all gasoline engine cars should be off the city streets by 2030.  Beginning immediately the number of gasoline engine cars made each year cannot be increased but systematically reduced.  For example, if 18 million gasoline engine cars were made in 2013, then beginning in 2014 10% less gasoline engine cars can be made; that is, in 2014 only 16.2 million gasoline engine cars can be made.  And each subsequent year will see a further reduction of number of cars made until none is made in 2020.  From 2020 on only electric cars are made.  And by 2030 all gasoline engine cars will be banned from city streets.
With only electric cars running on city streets there will be very little pollution.  The other sources of pollution is from power plants.  With new power plants based on hydroelectricity, wind, solar and nuclear power plants with breeder reactors, China can produce clean electricity almost indefinitely into the future.  There is are many rivers in the southern China that can be utilized for hydroelectricity.  There are also many windy hills and plains for wind power.  And the vast deserts can generate huge amounts of solar energy.  China has enough urnium for 1,000 breeder reactors for hundreds of years.  China has the technologies and the resources for clean power for hundreds of years.  The only problem is the lack of will and corruption on the part of the leadership.  Hopefully, the new leaders will now brush away the special interests that cater to the foreign car makers of gasoline engine cars and institute necessary laws and policies to make China energy self-sufficient and reclaim its domestic car market while cleaning up the environment. 

TV Monitor
January 18, 2013 at 02:00

China is a paradise in the same vein as North Korea is a paradise. 

January 17, 2013 at 13:52

But I thought China was a paradise?
Where's John Chan? Where's John Chan?
Waiting patiently to read his white noise posts. I'm sure this is somehow America's fault.

January 17, 2013 at 05:11

As long as Chinas population keeps growing then this problem will not go away. China has to look into using clean renewable energy and not fossil fuels but instead they like to claim large rocks near its neighbors for fossil fuels. If its so great why not show the world, lead the world away from using fossil fuels and start a electrcity boom for vehicles at least. Now that would be something.
I don't see that happening as China will self destruct the way they are going. The same can be said with the US but this The Diplomat and I want to talk about China.

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