Shanghai Air Quality is No Joke

Why Shanghai air quality should worry you

Put on your face mask, turn on your air purifiers, but don't start your engines or let off firecrackers! The Pig-tailed mascot of Shanghai’s Real-time Air Quality Reporting System is once again bawling her eyes out. Shanghai Air quality is no laughing matter, and expats need to take precautions.

In this article we look at the early days when Shanghai air quality first became a serious issue in 2013, its causes, and the first serious steps taken by the local government to tackle it. 

Air Pollution Spreads to Shanghai in 2013

Prior to 2013 Beijing's poor air quality was well known to all China-based expats, as well as people overseas, but in the winter of 2012/2013 Shanghai was also hit by serious air pollution.

Reports that many expats were considering leaving the city due to poor Shanghai air quality surfaced. Stories of expats leaving due to air pollution had been common in Beijing for several years, but new to Shanghai.  

In November 2013 the AQI and PM2.5 readings in Shanghai started hitting hazardous levels. On November 4th the PM2.5 level reached 140 ug/m3, almost twice the national limit of 75, and on November 15th the PM2.5 concentration climbed to 228 ug/m3.

But that was just the start.

In early December, PM2.5 and AQI readings soared through the charts, setting all-time records; not something to be proud of.

On December 2nd, the city issued its first ever Orange warning (AQI exceeding 300), and on December 6th, PM 25 concentrations passed 600 ug/m3, easily surpassing the maximum possible AQI value of 500.

For all of 2013, the number of Good air quality days in Shanghai was 241; meaning 124 days of poor air quality.

Shanghai experienced so many consecutive poor air quality days in November and December 2013 that the Shanghai Environmental Authority decided to raise the bar for air pollution alerts, due to PM2.5 pollution, from 75 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 115 ug/m3.

The poor Shanghai Air Quality issue was voted as the number one story of 2013 in Shanghai, in a poll organized by the Shanghai Daily newspaper.

Reasons for Poor Shanghai Air Quality During the Winter

So why does Shanghai air quality get so much worse during the winter?

According to Qian Hua, director of the research institute of atmospheric environment under the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences, during the summer months Shanghai gets wind mainly from the South East, off the ocean, which is relatively clean, whereas during the winter months winds from the North dominate.

As winter arrives Northern municipalities start turning on more coal-burning boilers for their central heating systems. The northern wind then carries these dirty emissions south, having a large effect on Shanghai Air Quality.

Moreover, the trees that densely line Shanghai's streets and avenues lose their leaves in late Autumn which means they can no longer help to trap dust.

Another source of this winter air pollution is the burning of straw left over from the harvest. Peasants in nearby Zhejiang and Jiangsu province can often be seen burning huge amounts of straw in their fields during October to December.

This is a regular occurrence all over Northern and Central China two to three times each year, and one which the government has not yet dealt with successfully. The Shanghai Environmental Bureau acknowledged that approximately 10 percent of Shanghai air pollution was caused by straw burning.

Shanghai Air Quality Readings

Health Effects of Shanghai Air Quality

The long-term health effects from poor Shanghai air quality are hard to measure, but as the WHO recently classified air pollution to be a number one carcinogen, the outlook is not good.

Other reports in the local Chinese press and overseas revealed that pollution was also affecting the quality of Shanghai sperm at sperm banks in the city.

The impact of bad air quality on Children's health is also a serious issue. Children are more affected by poor Shanghai air quality, as they spend more time outdoors, and participate in more rigorous activities just as their lungs are developing.

Economic Effects of Shanghai Air Quality

Although health effects take some time to show up, economic damage caused by poor Shanghai air quality has appeared much sooner.

In December 2013 many flights were delayed or cancelled due to heavy air pollution.

Other new measures required to be implemented by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection during severe air pollution bouts, including closure of factories, restrictions on vehicle use, and closing of schools are sure to cause much economic damage.

Actions Taken to Improve Shanghai Air Quality

On October 18th, 2013, the local Shanghai government unveiled its comprehensive plan to improve air quality; The Shanghai Clean Air Action Plan.

This plan has been touted as the first regulation in China to prevent and control volatile compounds that make up PM2.5, such as carbon dioxide.

It aims to reduce the concentration of PM2.5 by 20 percent of the 2012 level by 2017. This goal became Shanghai's official target as part of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection's liability paper signed with many cities and provinces in January 2014.

Wu Qizhou, deputy director of the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau, said:

"One of the highlighted measures in the Shanghai plan is forbidding coal burning."

According to the plan, more than 2,500 boilers and 300 industrial furnaces that use coal will be closed down, or shifted to clean energy, by 2015. And coal firing will be completed banned in Shanghai in 2017.

The new plan increases punishments for factories and vehicles and restaurants which emit excessive pollutants.

As well, the plan lays out emergency actions to be taken when the AQI passes 300, including shutting down schools, factories and construction sites, and removing one third of government vehicles from the roads.

Such measures are similar to those announced for Beijing, but Beijing's emergency measures don't kick in until the AQI hits 500.

On November 20th 2013, Shanghai also announced rules fora carbon emissions trading scheme, following on the footsteps of Shenzhen, which became the first city in China to begin carbon credits trading on June 18th, 2013.

In early January 2014, Shanghai launched a joint effort with its three closest provinces, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui, to tackle air pollution, recognizing that it cannot solve the problem by itself.

In late January 2014, Shanghai's Party Secretary Han Zheng announced that a ban on the burning of straw within all of Shanghai was to be introduced. 

On the face of it these actions sound very good, but with many of the targets set to be reached no earlier than 2017, Shanghai expats need to find solutions to combat poor Shanghai air quality.

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