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.

 
 
 
 

“You need to leave home three hours in advance”: On the reality of commuting in Beijing

Just another day on the Beijing Subway. Image: Getty.

Sihui Station. One of the busiest subway station in central Beijing.

A train comes. People all stop checking their cellphones, holding tight to their bags or briefcases and waiting for the door to open. The doors open. The game on.

The people standing at the front of the lines rush into the carriage. To be more precise, they are pushed into the carriages by the people standing behind them. Some of them should have decided to wait for the next train, but they are somehow forced to get on the train by the squeezing crowds. Sometimes, there are women yelling at others to stop pushing.

The carriages are full of people within seconds, with only half of the waiting people able to get on. The other half just have to wait for the next train. The same scene repeats and repeats, lasting for 5 hours every day, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Beijing Subway: the Batong line extends line 1 to the eastern suburbs. Image: Ran/Hat600/Wikimedia Commons.

This is the adventure that Beijing commuters have to take on every day. It is, honestly, insane. Crowded stations, long waiting lines, passengers pouring into the carriages – this is the nightmare faced by all the Beijing workers taking this line to go and back from work. There is a saying in my university that it takes great courage to take subways during rush hours. And it does.

Batong Line, the one connecting central Beijing and the eastern residential areas, is one of the busiest subway lines in Beijing, delivering more than 200,000 commuters every day. The picture below is of its terminus Sihui station during evening rush hour.

Sihui station. Image: author provided.

Mrs.Hou is a 31 years old woman who lives in Tongzhou, a main residential district of Beijing. She has to take Batong Line every day to go to work. “If you want to get to work on time, you need to leave home three hours in advance to make sure that you are able to squeeze into the subway,” she says. “Sometimes I even have to take the opposite line first to avoid those throngs in the stations near the residential areas. I never expect that I would get a seat – I just want to get into the carriages, that’s all.”

Miss.Li, a 16 years old high school student, takes the subway to school every day. “Sometimes during the morning, I have to wait at the subway station for half an hour, because I’m unable to squeeze into any carriage. That’s why I am always late for school. There is no space, no space at all. Once my body was in the carriage, but my hair was outside.”


Mr.Han, a commuter, told me, “I don’t need to worry about braking or falling. This would not happen. After all, there is no space to fall.”

In the picture, taken from the stairs overlooking the platform, you can see that crowds have occupied the waiting areas for the opposite platform. Though there is a train every three minutes during the peak hours, the number of people waiting on the platform never seems to change: as throngs of commuters hustling into the carriages, other throngs pour onto the platform, to anxiously wait. Most of them are using their cellphones to kill time or listen to music. The platform is silent, even though hundreds of people are gathering at the station, as if they are gathering their energy to win the oncoming battle. This is probably the strangest thing about it: that so many people could occupy a specific place at the same time, and it could be that silent.

Although the government has made every effort to address the problem – for instance, shortening the interval between trains – it could not meet the demand. More than 200,000 extra people pouring into Beijing every day from all over China and the world. The stress on public transport in China is a big issue – but it’s hard to deny the authorities are doing well in delivering more than 20m residents to their destinations every day.

Siyi Liu is a Chinese exchange student, currently studying journalism at Bath Spa University.