Air Pollution in China

Air pollution in China is not only an issue for expats living in Beijing, it should also be a serious concern for expats all over China.

In January 2013 the air quality in Shanghai was the worst in its history. According to the Shanghai Daily, approximately 35 percent of days during the first three months of 2013 were considered slightly or very hazardous to health.

This article takes a look at the central government’s first serious steps to tackle air pollution in China in 2013.

Please see our other article to find out how much air quality in China has improved in the following years.

Airpocalypse Arrives in Shanghai

Beijing expats have been experiencing bad air quality for many years, but most Shanghai expats felt relatively distanced from this problem. Only in 2012 did we start regularly hearing terms such as AQI, PM10, PM2.5 in Shanghai.

Environmental authorities in Beijing finally started publishing real-time PM2.5 data in January 2012. This came about partly due to public pressure after comparisons between China’s official PM10 readings and the real-time PM2.5 readings issued by the American Embassy in Beijing became widespread on social media.

The US embassy had started monitoring PM2.5 on its embassy grounds in 2008 and sending the readings out through their official twitter account to its staff and American families in Beijing.

Whereas official PM10 readings often showed Beijing Air Quality as ‘good’ or even ‘excellent’, the coinciding US embassy readings of PM2.5 sometimes showed the same air quality as ‘very unhealthy’ or ‘hazardous’.  The public began to trust the embassy air quality descriptions more and the local government was pressured to start releasing some PM2.5 data and work to set up a new monitoring system to cover the whole city by the end of 2012.

Official PM2.5 readings were also not available in Shanghai at the time, so the American Consulate began issuing PM2.5 and AQI readings from its grounds in May 2012.

Only in late June 2012 did the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Center start issuing its own hourly and average readings for PM2.5 concentration.

Air pollution in China

How Serious is Air Pollution in China?

It is debatable how serious the health effects of air pollution are. It has been argued that the effects are less than smoking even one cigarette a day.

Since that article was first published, however, health authorities around the world have begun to warn that air pollution is a much more serious health issue than previously thought.

In October 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified air pollution and particulate matter as level Group 1 human carcinogen (cancer causing), the same level as tobacco.

Studies on the serious effects of air pollution

Several studies have concluded the price being paid for air pollution in China is very high. 

A joint study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University's School of Public Health found that about 8,572 premature deaths, and US$1.08 billion in economic losses, occurred due to excessive PM2.5 in the cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi'an and Beijing in 2012.

Another research paper, published in July 2013 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claims that the higher use of coal, mainly used for winter heating, cut life expectancies in the north of China by more than five years compared to the south.

A study conducted by Nanjing University's School of the Environment and published in the November 2016 edition of the Science of the Total Environment journal concluded that pollution particles PM2.5 contributed somewhat to about one third of the more than 3 million deaths in 74 Chinese cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, and the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta in 2013.

Fortunately the government is taking air pollution in China very seriously, and began to take measures to confront it in 2013.

The Government Begins to Tackle Air Pollution

As serious air pollution spread to more regions of China, on September 12, 2013 the Environmental Protection Ministry (MEP) unveiled its new comprehensive plan to tackle the issue; The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17).

The plan set specific targets for reducing the annual average concentration of PM2.5 by 2017 based on the base year of 2012 levels:

  • Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) regional cluster: about 25 percent
  • The Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region (including Shanghai): about 20 percent
  • The Pearl River Delta (PRD) region (including Guangzhou): about 15 percent
  • Beijing: PM2.5 annual average concentration to be reduced to about 60 ug/m3 from 96 ug/m3 in 2012

The investment required to implement the plan is estimated to be 1.75 trillion yuan ($284.2 billion).

The government also announced that Carbon trading schemes would soon be implemented around China.

Reducing Air Pollution in China Will not be Easy

Some targets of the Action Plan, however, were not so bold. For instance, it called for banning heavily polluting vehicles only by 2017.

As well, its target to reduce coal, one of China's main causes of air pollution, as a proportion of overall energy mix from 68 percent to 65 percent by 2017 was not so ambitious. In fact, with China's fast-growing economy, this might mean actual increased total coal usage by 2017. 

A December 10, 2013 article by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency stated: "China's pollution is expected to continue growing well into the next decade, albeit at a slower pace, as it has little choice but to rely on fossil fuels to develop its Western interior."

The article was discussing a new report issued by China's National Development and Reform Commission, in co-ordination with several ministries, which stated that: 

"Our country is a developing nation with a large population, complex climate conditions and a weak environment. Climate change is already a serious threat to food, water, ecological and energy security, and to people's lives and property. The mission to deal with climate change is very arduous, but knowledge in society and ability to do this are weak across the board."

New Evaluation System for Officials

Fortunately, one encouraging move showing a change in the government's policy of heavily prioritizing economic development over the environment came in late 2013. 

On December 9th the Organization department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee issued a new performance evaluation system for government officials. No longer would GDP growth be the most important factor when evaluating an official's performance. Other areas to be included in the evaluation process will be:

  • raising people's livelihoods
  • promoting ecology
  • protecting the environment
  • improving social security, education and employment

Previously government officials focused on GDP growth in their region in order to win promotions, turning a blind eye to air pollution in China. Hopefully this new system will lead to some change in local officials' priorities.

Environment Vs. The Economy

The Chinese government as well as much of the population, however, does not want to seriously damage the economy by immediately closing the factories that supply Western countries with their cheap consumables, shutting down the coal-fired power plants that provide their electricity, or stopping people from buying more cars as wealth increases.

And most Western populations would also not be happy with the results if China slammed the breaks on its development. As the Economist pointed out in its cover stories; "The world's worst polluter" and "The East is grey"; from the August 10, 2013 edition:

"About a quarter of China's carbon emissions is produced making goods for export."

The articles in this special edition of The Economist, however, also offer an excellent analysis of the impact of China's environmental and natural-resource degradation to its own economy; the equivalent of 9 percent of GDP according to the World Bank, as well as to the global environment.

Government efforts to curb air pollution in China made a good start in 2013 with the Action Plan, but achieving healthy air quality will take many years. In the meantime expats need to take common sense precautions and make use of the many affordable solutions to stay healthy and safe during their time in China.

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