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 history of Brick Lane Mosque tells the story of the East End’s immigrant past

Brick Lane Mosque. Image: Lemur12.

There’s a mosque a short walk from Whitechapel station on Brick Lane, one of the many that serve the large Bengali population who live in the East End. Originally called the London Great Mosque (“Jamme Masjid” in Bengali), it is now known only as the Brick Lane Mosque, following the building of much larger Islamic centres around London, such as one nearby on Whitechapel Road.

High above the separate entrances for men and women on a stone sundial are carved the Latin words “Umbra Sumus”. These words and the date above them betray the long history of the building that has stood unassumingly on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane for almost 250 years. A building housing the religions of the successive waves of immigrants, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, who have defined the East End and London itself for hundreds of years.

The building was originally built in 1743 as a church by the French Huguenots who settled in London after fleeing religious persecution in France. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by the French King Louis XIV in 1685, saw the rolling back of hard won civil rights for Protestant religious minorities and their subsequent emigration from France. Those that came to London settled in the Brick Lane area and a thriving weaving industry developed. When this declined due to industrialisation in the north of England, the Huguenots moved West, contributing to the large French population in Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith, and Fulham. So their church on Brick Lane fell out of use.

The poverty of the area, as well as its proximity to the London docklands, meant that it remained the starting point for the historic stream of immigrants to the city. Following the Huguenots, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia settled in the area during the 19th century.

Earlier the building on the corner of Fournier Street had briefly been used as a mission for the evangelical Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews, an indigenous attempt to convert the immigrant community to the native religion. This was a short-lived and unsuccessful endeavour and the building soon became the main point of worship for the Jewish community, the “Great Synagogue”. Just as the Huguenots left before them, the new residents of Brick Lane and its surrounding area eventually moved out of the East End towards the leafy suburbs of North London.

Only four of the 150 synagogues that were built in Tower Hamlets remain today and the Great Synagogue on Brick Lane was one of those lost to history. The building was repurposed as a mosque for the Bengalis who inherited this part of London from the Jewish community. The current residents of Brick Lane mostly immigrated from Bangladesh after the country gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Seeking work or fleeing the terrible war for secession from West Pakistan, which saw the creation of the modern state of Bangladesh, the ethnically Bengali community in Tower Hamlets grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century and now make up 32 per cent of the borough's total population.

Immigrants from across the world have thrived in the East End in spite of intense poverty and racism from those who came before. It was Jewish immigrants who stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists on Cable Street. Next door to the nearby East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road you can find Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bengali man who was murdered in a racially motivated attack during racial tension in the East End.

The pain and success of those who have lived in the East End is written on the streets of London, in the architecture, monuments, shops and lasting communities now scattered across the city. Each wave of immigrants leaving a shadow of themselves on the city long after they have gone and their children have become Londoners. Umbra Sumus means “We are shadows”; prophetic words carved in a long-dead language, by people who themselves died long ago.