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.


“The transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question”: why Britain needs to reform bus funding

Look! A bus! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Putting public money into the bus is one of the biggest bargains in transport policy, yet it has been one of the biggest losers from recent trends in transport spending. This makes little sense given the Urban Transport Group’s latest analysis, which shows that supporting bus services aligns with the policy goals of 12 of the 25 different departments in Whitehall.

And it’s not just the departments you might expect. Buses tick the boxes for the Department of International Trade because the British bus manufacturing industry has an impressive export track record. The bus meets the goals of the Department of Work & Pensions, such as providing access to opportunity. It helps out DEFRA because buses support rural economies.

And the bus supports the aims of the Department of Health and Social Care as buses promote physical activity, give older and disabled people independence and because they could play a greater role in a more efficient approach to non-emergency patient transport. In short, every single pound that supports bus services cuts congestion, while contributing to numerous wider social, economic and environment goals. Not many other modes of transport could tot up all these benefits.

But without public support for bus services, labour markets will shrink and more people will be unable to participate in the economy; skills and apprenticeships will be hit because of reduced access to further education. High street regeneration will be damaged through reduced access to town centres, and there will be increased pressure on congested road networks as bus users migrate to the car. And there’ll be public health impacts from more isolation and loneliness, and less physical activity. The young will be hit hardest. A divided society will become more divided.

Despite these risks, that hasn’t stopped all six sources of bus funding being cut back in recent years. This in turn, has given an unhelpful shove in the back to a mode which was already tumbling down the slope, plummeting towards the cliff edge in too many parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Highways England has more money that it can spend to expand inter-urban road capacity which will continue to pump more traffic into cities that don’t want it, generate more car-dependent sprawl, worsen air quality, increase carbon emissions and replace big traffic jams with even bigger traffic jams. An extra £500m a year for buses, for example, would be less than 2 per cent of the annual revenue to Treasury from fuel duty.

It’s not just the total amount of bus funding that is the problem however. Making things worse is the convoluted and uncoordinated way in which buses are funded by different Departments, with no sense across government of the cumulative impact of their different decisions.

So, arguably as important for bus funding as the Department for Transport, is the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (which indirectly funds concessionary travel, as well as those services which operators won’t provide commercially). And then, in a separate box altogether, is over £1bn of Department for Education funding for schools transport.

All of which makes bus funding the transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question – about which Palmerston said only three people understand it, one of whom was dead, the other mad and the other had forgotten all about it. Put bluntly, it’s a bad way to fund what is a very good thing.

The Treasury’s Spending Review is expected to run the rule over the Department for Transport’s main source of bus funding, the Bus Service Operators Grant, which provides a rebate on fuel duty. The mood music in Whitehall about protecting bus funding is far better than it was last time it was scrutinised in a Spending Review. But with the bus in sharp decline and punch drunk from previous funding cuts, now is the time for something more ambitious than tinkering and holding the line.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group.