Air Pollution in China

Air pollution in China is not only a concern for expats in Beijing, it should also be a serious concern for expats in Shanghai.

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. 

Airpocalypse Arrives in Shanghai

Beijing expats have been experiencing bad air quality for many years, but most Shanghai expats felt relatively secure from this problem, and only in 2012 started hearing terms such as AQI, PM10, PM2.5 on a regular basis.

Environmental authorities in Beijing only started issuing PM2.5 measurements in January 2012. This came about due to public pressure after comparisons in social media of China’s official PM10 readings to the real-time PM2.5 readings issued by the American Embassy in Beijing became widespread.

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 staff and American families in Beijing.

Whereas PM10 readings often showed Beijing Air Quality as ‘good’ or even ‘excellent’, the US embassy readings of PM2.5 and their associated Air Quality Index description of ‘very unhealthy’ or ‘hazardous’ were seen as a much better reflection of reality.

With no public PM2.5 readings in Shanghai available at the time, the American Consulate began issuing PM2.5 and AQI readings from its Consulate grounds in May 2012.

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

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

On September 12, 2013 the Environmental Protection Ministry (MEP) unveiled its new comprehensive plan to tackle air pollution in China; The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17).

The plan calls for reducing concentration levels of PM2.5 for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei regional cluster, by 25 percent by 2017 from the 2012 level, the Yangtze River Delta region (including Shanghai) by 20 percent and for the Pearl River Delta region (including Guangzhou) by about 15 percent.

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

Carbon trading schemes also started to be implemented around China.

Reducing Air Pollution in China Will not be Easy

Some targets of the Action Plan, however, don't sound bold enough. For instance, it calls for banning heavily polluting vehicles only by 2017.

As well, it aims to reduce coal, one of China's key causes of air pollution, as a proportion of China's overall energy mix from 68 percent to 65 percent by 2017.

With China's fast-growing economy, this might mean actual increased total coal useage 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."

Environmental Protection Used in Evaluating Government Officials

One encouraging change, however, is the new attitude of the Chinese Communist Party towards environmental protection, versus economic development, as outlined on December 9th, 2013.

The Communist Party of China Central Committee's Organization Department said in a statement that GDP growth will no longer 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

This should lead to a big change in the habits of local officials, who previously were only evaluated on GDP growth in their region which caused them to often turn a blind eye to air pollution in China. Such a change, however, is likely to take time.

Environment Vs. The Economy

Clearly, China does not want to risk hurting its economy by immediately closing many of the factories that supply Western countries with their cheap consumables, closing the coal-fired power plants that provide our electricity, or freeze the increase in the number of cars we use to get around.

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."

These Economist articles 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, and to the world environment.

Chinese government efforts to curb air pollution in China will take several years to achieve good results. In the meantime expats need to be vigilant and take common sense precautions to stay healthy and safe.

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