UK United Kingdom

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.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Sherley

    Lecturer/researcher of marketing at Charles Sturt University

    Very nice article, I think we (the the global community) have gotten too caught up in the debate about how to address global climate change and we now forget to acknowledge that most of our environmental problems could be addressed by focusing on the concept of pollution at a local level.

  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    A story with millions of losers and no winners.

    Cleaning up the air will take years. In the meantime the level of peoples' health will decline significantly placing a huge burden on the health infrastructure and economy.

    The article highlights the need to address not only climate change, but pollution at local and national levels as Chris S suggests.

    1. Norman taylor


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I remember years ago when there was a strike by petrol tanker drivers in the Sydney area.
      It only took a few days for the pollution level to drop dramatically, and the sky was blue, and …
      Officially (and politically) it had nothing to do with fewer cars on the roads! WTF!

    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Norman taylor

      There is no doubt that Norman that the more dense your internal combustion engined transportation use is, the more dirtier your air, even with catalytic scrubbers etc. and they seem to do very little for huge clouds of black smoke emitting diesels.
      I always back off a few more car lengths if I find myself having come across a truck, bus or 4WD and a hill is coming up and that is out in the country where the air is usually a lot fresher.
      If you get the chance to live far enough away from particularly…

      Read more
  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Looking at the map and despite a tinge of yuk around the south east ( Melbourne to Brisbane effect ) we can still call Australia the lucky country.
    As the more populous countries such as India and China and the region in between ( not to mention Africa with explosive population trends ) have populations seeking to improve what they see as increasing their standard of living which usually means more fossil fuel use, they'll just move closer to greater percentage deaths.
    Moving away from the reliance…

    Read more
    1. Norman taylor


      In reply to Greg North

      Why filtration at the personal level?
      Why not filter the output from the coal-fired power stations?

    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Norman taylor

      I did mention personal filtration as being an interim measure Norman, there being a number of issues that the Chinese need to address and they will not be quick fixes even if there are some things that could create considerable improvement.
      Meanwhile there are some assumptions to be made; on power stations, much has been made of China replacing many smaller older inefficient and polluting power stations with larger modern ones and it is hoped that the Chinese have been diligent in constructing new…

      Read more
  4. Geoffrey Sherrington


    China has plenty of work ahead of it to move from one economic standard to another.
    It does not need environmental activism trying to take over topics like air pollution with a pretence of knowledge and ownership.
    It is not realistic to propose that activism by assorted NGOs and busybodies can contribute much to the present progressive management except the characteristic special pleading whinges that typify environmental activism.
    I've seen China's ability to engage activists in assorted compulsory tasks like sorting twigs into bundles of large, medium and small, 7 days a week, for use in the millions of cooking stoves that help support life during what will be a long transition.
    The proper authorities know that unilateral moves to suddenly reduce air pollution will simply lead to more deaths from starvation, outweighing the particulate casualties. They are the correct, final arbiters of priorities.

    1. Nick Fisher


      In reply to Geoffrey Sherrington

      What a very odd comment, Geoffrey!

      You seem to be warning actual and potential Chinese 'activists' to avoid confronting China's 'proper authorities' about air pollution, noting that China's current pollution policy is progressive and legitimate.

      And those concerned from without are likely poorly informed and have no legitimate concern about pollution within China and its inevitable spread outside its boundaries. Hmm.

      So the choice is pollute or starve? How much of this pollution is directly or indirectly the result of Chinese agriculture?

      Tell me what you know about the history and achievements of anti-pollution activism over the last few centuries.

  5. Lincoln Fung


    While the article is very helpful and informational, some of the view point are not necessarily correct.
    for example, the two paragraphs at the end of the second last section read "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…

    Read more
    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Lincoln Fung

      You need to go and have a look at an operating power station Lincoln and you will find that coal washing has nothing to do with PM2.5 for all coal washing achieves is to help with any pre burning handling dust issues and that dust will likely be far above the PM2.5 sizing.
      You will also find that a modern power station will be constructed with electrostatic flue gas precipitators to take the finer particles out of flue gas after the burning but even such devices have their operational limits when it comes down to collecting the smaller sized particles.
      And so the problem remains that the more coal fired power stations you build, you just add to the small particles being created from internal combustion engine exhausts and as the article mentions, coal fired heating plants that are likely far less efficient than power stations.

    2. Lincoln Fung


      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, you might have assumed that all China's power stations use modern technology. If modern technology was used the pollution in China would not be so severe.
      Further, if the electrostatic flue gas precipitators are used in most of coal combustions in China, it would not have the current pollution either.
      I am not sure you know what it means in China's pollution.

    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Lincoln Fung

      Lincoln, you will see I have mentioned modern power stations and I do not assume all Chinese PSs are modern even if they have had a continuing program to replace older small less efficient stations with newer ones.
      Secondly, I have also referred to the limitation of precipitators where they are used and the situation is that larger/heavier particles that are not taken out by precipitators will eventually settle out somewhere.
      It is the much smaller particles that do not get removed from flue gases that will stay airborne for longer and so cause the air pollution, the same going for internal combustion engines and flues of coal fired heaters if little by way of flue gas cleaning occurs.
      Even if every bit of coal burning in China had precipitators for cleaning, the pollution would still likely be there seeing as there is so much coal being burnt as well as increasing numbers of vehicles.

  6. Sheena Burnell


    An excellent article that tackles the real situation in China today, thank you.

  7. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Could be a Melbourme Cup connection in all this haze for the winner Fiorente could nearly have a fire meaning though in Italian it can mean thriving or flourishing and it seems that is certainly what is happening with pollution for China.
    Picking Fiorente to box with a few horses for a trifecta was easy enough even if the right other ones did not show up.
    I should have known a horse with something Red in its name could come as a cadre for second and so we had Red Cadeaux ( who would have thought ) and then picking a trifecta like fixing pollution for the Chinese ( not to mention the rest of the planet ) could be likened to climbing a mountain and yep Mount Athos was it romped in for third.

  8. David Elson

    logged in via Facebook

    Dreadful.. The world is relying on China to be both it's factory, and driving of future technological innovation...

    Sad to see them swimming in Greens; although understandable given their environmental problems.