Airpocalypse II, and what China’s doing about it

Harbin’s landmark San Sophia church was barely visible Monday as heavy pollution forced the closure of schools and highways.  Reuters photo.

Harbin’s landmark San Sophia church was barely visible Monday as heavy pollution forced the closure of schools and highways. Reuters photo.

The horrific smog that recently engulfed NE China got a lot of people’s attention.  Reports of school closures, airport shutdowns, city buses getting lost on their routes, PM 2.5 concentrations 40 times the WHO safety standard, and air quality index scores of 500 (the highest possible reading), all suggested another apocalyptic moment in China’s belated battle with air pollution.  But much of the media coverage spurred by China’s ‘airpocaplyse II’ has focused on the recent changes in official attitudes toward the problem.  As reported recently in the New York Times,

Chinese news media, including official state outlets, are reporting more aggressively on the causes and effects of pollution. An editorial in Beijing News on Wednesday took note that last week the World Health Organization had classified air pollution as a leading cause of cancer, and said that on days when the air is hazardous, “containing the pollution and protecting the health of residents is the highest priority.”

This openness is obviously a ‘healthy’ step.  Beijing now takes seriously the link between pollution and reduced life expectancy, though whether more resources will be devoted to bolstering China’s weak enforcement of environmental standards remains to be seen.

“I give credit to the local government for taking these measures,” Ma Jun, an environmental advocate, said of the emergency actions in Harbin. “Of course, they will have some problem with their image, the city’s image — but on the other hand, it shows they put people’s health ahead of saving face. “Having said that, I think it’s not enough,” he added. “I think people won’t be satisfied with just knowing which day to put on face masks or not go to school or keep their children indoors. They really want blue-sky days.” Under pressure from the public, Beijing in 2012 became the first Chinese city to announce levels of an especially hazardous category of particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, in the air. Since then, 113 other cities have followed suit. The data can be seen online in real time, which was how much of China followed the crisis in Harbin.

So, while these are all steps in the right direction, concern about enforcement as well as the broader structural problem that China faces remains.  With 70% of its energy dependent on coal-burning, this will be a loosing battle until more fundamental changes in energy production occur.

China’s efforts at emissions reduction was also the topic of an opinion piece by Chris Nielson and Mun Ho of of the China Project at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  They recently edited the book Clearer Skies Over China: Reconciling Air Quality, Climate and Economic GoalsThey remind us that China has already made enormous investments in decarbonizing its energy system.

In less than 10 years it has built the world’s largest wind power capacity, with plans to triple it by 2020. Its hydropower capacity, also the largest in the world, is expected to triple from 2005 to 2020, and its nuclear capacity will multiply at least sixfold over that same period. And China is increasing imports and production of natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel.

They point out, however, that all these efforts are falling short for several reasons.

One of them is China’s instinctual response to such challenges: a top-down approach to try to engineer its way through them according to master plans. The result is that China may be winning battles but not the wars on emissions control, because its faith in mandates has met its match: an economy that is growing too fast, and atmospheric challenges that are too multifaceted for even the smartest planners to tame.

Then there are the chemical complexities of the atmosphere itself.  They note that successful reductions in sulfur dioxide have actually contributed to increases in particulate matter.  “[R]research by Wang Yuxuan and colleagues at Tsinghua University suggests that reducing sulfur dioxide emissions can even increase fine particle levels in north China in winter, because it frees another pollutant, ammonia, to react instead with nitric acid to form PM 2.5.”

From the New York Times

From the New York Times

Finally, all the buzz about polluted air in China has gotten the writer Yu Hua thinking about the dust up in 2012 over the US Embassy’s monitoring of PM 2.5 levels in Beijing’s air.  He tells us that,

Prior to these PM 2.5 reports, hardly anyone in China except for a few environmental professionals knew that these tiny particles can directly enter the bronchial tubes, interfere with gas exchange in the lungs and cause a variety of serious health problems. While Chinese officials criticized America and minimized the dangers of PM 2.5, Chinese citizens went online to vent their dissatisfaction with the government. Face masks sold out and cans of compressed air were hawked on the streets.

But the attitude among officials has changed significantly in less than two years.

It’s widely assumed that air purifiers have been installed in our leaders’ offices and homes, but they still have to go outside, and when they do they have to breathe the same polluted air as everyone else. Maybe because our leaders are also suffering from the effects of pollution, or maybe because there’s increasing pressure from society, our government has made a sudden about-face in its attitude toward PM 2.5, no longer chafing about monitoring by the Americans or minimizing the hazards.

But, he also points out that to many citizens in Beijing and other cities beleaguered by chronic smog, the government’s efforts verge on the farcical when compared to the enormity of the task at hand:

In the Mao era, the government maintained its authority by coercive indoctrination, whereas today economic growth is one of the keys to holding power. Thus, some cities’ main response to air pollution is to restrict drivers to using their cars on alternating days, based on their license plate numbers, and we see half-baked policies instead of serious action. One of the measures for alleviating air pollution in Beijing, for example, is banning outdoor barbecue stalls. Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, is China’s top steel-producing province. Steel plants play a big role in air and water pollution, but the city of Cangzhou’s answer to the problem is an anti-smoking campaign. A Hebei official newspaper, Yanzhao Dushi Bao, reported in July that local officials in Cangzhou held a public meeting pledging their commitment to the anti-smoking cause. With smoke billowing from the chimneys of factories in the distance, officials promoted the slogan: “Curbing air pollution starts with me!”

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