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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).