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China is groping its way through another ‘airpocalypse’

The cold weather has come, the coal-powered heating has been switched on, and China’s north is once more swathed in thick smog. Air pollution has been a worsening problem in China in recent years, and…

Cold weather and coal-burning fires have plunged China into another air pollution disaster. EPA/Hao Bin

The cold weather has come, the coal-powered heating has been switched on, and China’s north is once more swathed in thick smog. Air pollution has been a worsening problem in China in recent years, and a problem that has sparked huge public protest on Chinese social media. But has anything been fixed? Residents of Harbin would likely say “no”.

Two years ago in December 2011, a nation-wide debate over air pollution on Sina Weibo - China’s most popular microblogging service - focussed public attention on the scientific term “PM 2.5”. PM 2.5, or particulate matter 2.5, refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in width.

Exposure to fine particles can affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Studies also suggest long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.

But why was the Chinese public so interested in such an obscure term?

An American conspiracy?

PM 2.5 measurements were at the centre of a debate about different readings in air-quality released by local environmental authority and the US Embassy in Beijing.

The embassy installed its monitor before the 2008 Olympics to advise its staff about Beijing’s air quality, but later decided to make readings accessible to the Chinese public to alert them to health and security risks caused by polluted air. It turns out that the local readings are often significantly lower than those from the embassy which are often off the chart and above “hazardous” level.

Chinese officials explained the divergence came from different measurements they had adopted. The government explicitly condemned the US Embassy’s intervention in China’s internal affairs in violation of relevant international conventions and Chinese environmental regulations.

However, the huge repercussions from the Chinese public forced the authorities to take action.

New Nasa map shows the most polluted areas that kill. NASA

The deteriorating reality

In February 2012, in direct response to the previous dispute, China State Council added PM 2.5 monitoring to the newly revised National Ambient Air Quality Standard and applied it to dozens of pilot cities.

In the meantime, both the central government and local governments successively launched a series of measures to tighten air pollution control. One primary target, for example, was a stronger standard released at the end of 2012 to reduce emission discharge from vehicles.

Earlier this year, the most comprehensive and toughest plan to control air pollution, The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-2017) was issued; it was the second initiative to battle pollution in the past two years. It will be backed by 1,700 billion yuan (AU$292 billion) in total investment from the central government.

The Action Plan sets the road map for air pollution and control for the next five years in China with a focus on three key regions – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta. A series of new measures and specific targets will be implemented.

Despite these initiatives, the situation seems to be deteriorating. The poisonous smog shrouding most big cities keeps exceeding standards. In October this year, when some northern provinces turned on the coal-powered heating system for the winter, the “airpocalypse” arrived all over again. The public continues to question the new measurement, but what they are more concerned with now is how to effectively reduce air pollution they breathe in day by day.

Despite all their action, Chinese policymakers failed to address the elephant in the room. Coal burning is the largest source of PM 2.5 pollution, yet many Chinese big cities are big consumers of coal, which is realised as one key issue that will be addressed in the new Action Plan. However, even if one city cuts its emissions, air pollution is trans-boundary, coming from neighbouring cities or provinces.

So without parallel efforts to control the growing coal consumption and collective measures from satellite regions, it’s very hard to say whether China’s “big bang” measures will have much effect.

The rise of an environment movement

A green public sphere has been emerging in last few years, along with several large-scale public debates on environmental issues. The internet and newer social media have provided the public with more access to environmental information. They have even mobilised online movements after several particular local crises.

For example, after a water dispute arising in Weifang in East China - where the polluted underground water had given high rates of stomach cancer over years - Deng Fei (@Dengfei), a former investigative journalist and now an influential activist, initiated the “China Water Crisis Independent Investigation” on Weibo. This now regularly releases information about water quality nationwide.

Following the air quality crisis, a former journalist, political blogger and dissident, Michael Anti, set up China Air Daily. This website updates photos and satellite pictures of select cities in the US and China as records of the improvement or deterioration of air quality in these cities.

Other Chinese civic organisations like the Institution of Public & Environmental Affairs have also monitored the Chinese environment through mapping water, air and solid waste pollution in all cities over years. They also provide necessary knowledge and advices for the public as well as industries.

The strong wave of these grassroots movements has expedited the rise of a Chinese environmental movement pushing for more transparency in environment quality as well as monitoring the environmental governance of the authorities.

A choked economy hero. Xinhua News Agency

China has craved GDP growth in recent decades, and now it has begun to pay a heavy price in environmental and public health. Now the urgent priority for the Chinese government is to transform the way its economy grows. The economy must become greener.

More effective environmental policies should be enforced and expanded to all cities. Clean energy should be developed to replace coal and relevant industries subsided.

A successful clean revolution will rely on more efficient environmental governance and wider public participation in policy-making.