How China could fix its air pollution problem

Beijing's skyline, we assume. Image: Getty.

The 100m-and-counting views received by the Chinese air pollution documentary Under the Dome is dramatic, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise in a country where discussion of smog is more commonplace than discussion of the weather.

In most Chinese cities, it's hard to ignore air pollution. Where Los Angeles in the 70s was famous for its brown skyline, resulting from nitrogen dioxide and photochemical smog, China is now renowned for its white haze of fine droplets, formed when particulate matter pollution and water vapour combine and grow. China isn’t alone in having a problem with air pollution (go visit New Delhi, Mexico City, Lagos or London), but you simply can’t ignore it when the impacts on visibility are so great.

Until relatively recently, reliable data on Chinese air pollution was hard to come by, but this changed in 2009 when the US started measuring certain pollutants at their Embassy in Beijing and placing the information online. Soon afterwards there was a rapid expansion in open pollution data; now anyone, anywhere, can see real–time pollution all over China.

Of course much of this data simply confirms what most residents can tell for themselves – there are good and bad days (more often bad). But the new availability of quantitative information is now having an impact on people's behaviour. 

National acceptance of air pollution as a serious problem, via public realisation and heated debate, followed by mitigation measures and regulation, is a very well-trodden path that virtually all developed nations have gone through during periods of rapid economic expansion. In this respect the pollution problem now in China is systemically no different to the transition periods that led ultimately to the Clean Air Act in the UK, or the introduction of catalytic converters in the US.

An old problem on a new scale

The sources of pollution in Beijing are many and varied, but they have much in common with examples from history. Expanding provision of energy at the lowest possible cost has always been a lever in driving economic growth, and growth in China has been no exception. Its fuel of choice has been coal – and coal used in a somewhat uncontrolled and, until recently, poorly regulated manner.

Increases in transportation infrastructure have also characterised expanding economies; in the 21st century this means private cars, lorries, aircraft and shipping. While there has been moderate progress in reducing emissions on a per-car or per-aircraft basis, this is easily overwhelmed if the absolute numbers of each increase.

Agricultural emissions are a final but often overlooked contribution to pollution, and again China is no exception. Large populations with growing incomes want feeding, and this drives the increased use of fertilisers for productivity. In the atmosphere, ammonia from often remote agriculture is a potent contributor to particulate matter found in cities.

There are scant few historical examples of major economic expansion without air pollution as a consequence. In the absence of a really game-changing energy technology or fuel or food source, national strategies need to be designed to transition as quickly as possible through the polluted period, where low cost trumps all other considerations.

This is something that can be see as analogous to the demographic transition that also accompanies economic development. The UK probably experienced a transition period of more than 100 years of terrible urban air pollution before the problem was brought under any degree of control; it seems unlikely the government or citizens of China will accept a transition anything like that long.

Not all doom and gloom

Control of air pollutant emissions from coal-fired power stations are effective in other countries, so there is no reason why strong regulation and enforcement can’t achieve the same in China. Fertilisers and agriculture have proved technically and politically difficult to control in Europe and the US, but the science at least is understood.

There is also much that could be learned from the recent mistakes of others. It would be disappointing if the poor performance of modern diesel engines seen in European cities were allowed to play out again in China, or indeed in other less reported on pollution megacities in India, Africa and South America.

Although measurement data is sketchy and incomplete, it is reasonable to assume that China is now past its “peak pollution” in absolute terms. The rate of implementation of cleaner technologies is on a scale greater than anything ever attempted before. Things are getting better, but the distance still to travel is pretty vast.

Investing domestically in cleaner power, cleaner transport, and cleaner urban living has a cost, but so does the healthcare and reduced productivity that air pollution induces. Cleaner air investments should be viewed as part of the engine of economic development, rather than the brake.

Alastair Lewis is a Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (University of York).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.