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Shanghai’s ‘airpocalypse’: can China fix its deadly pollution?

The current “airpocolypse” emergency in Shanghai - which has seen schoolchildren ordered indoors to protect them from the polluted air, flights grounded and companies ordered to cut production - comes…

Thick haze has shrouded Shanghai for the past week, in the latest instance of extreme air pollution. Wikimediacommons/Galaxyharrylion

The current “airpocolypse” emergency in Shanghai - which has seen schoolchildren ordered indoors to protect them from the polluted air, flights grounded and companies ordered to cut production - comes at the end of a year in which China’s environmental crisis reached a tipping point.

“I hardly dare to breathe”, wrote one Shanghai resident on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. It’s a sense of despair and frustration felt around the country about hazardous levels of pollution.

Air pollution is a deadly problem. When thick smog blanketed Beijing early this year, there was a spike in children and elderly people needing urgent medical help, with Beijing Children’s Hospital seeing around 3000 patients a day with respiratory problems.

That sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration on China’s social media, which has continued through 2013 and forced the nation’s new leadership to make the environment a top priority.

Recently, the central government announced that it will spend trillions of Renminbi over the next five years tackling pollution, with a series of major initiatives to clean up air, water and soil. As well as facing community pressure to act, the government is beginning to recognise the huge economic and health costs of pollution, which are estimated to consume approximately 5% of the country’s yearly gross domestic product.

The big question now is whether the unprecedented sums of money being be spent on environmental clean-up can buy back clean air, water and soil in the world’s most populous nation.

Grow first, clean up later

The environmental degradation that has accompanied China’s rapid industrialisation has been well-known since the mid-1990s, when campaigners such as Ma Jun drew attention to severe water pollution.

However, until recently the authorities generally paid lip-service to environmental regulation, and were unable or unwilling to enforce rules at ground level. A “grow (and pollute) first; clean up later” philosophy was adopted, based partly on a desire to rapidly alleviate poverty, with the assumption that pollution could be dealt with further down the track.

Some commentaries have recently argued that China has simply followed the same path as other countries during industrialisation, such as Japan and the United States in the last century. This implies that the coming clean-up phase in China should be able to bring the environment back to a condition comparable to those countries today.

Shanghai before sunset in February 2008, seen from the Jin Mao tower observation deck. The sun has not yet dropped below the horizon; it has simply reached the smog line. Wikimediacommons/Suicup

For residents now living in the midst of choking air pollution – concentrations of particulate matter in Shanghai last week were more than 20 times the safe standard – this argument will probably bring little comfort.

However, it is worth taking a closer look at this comparison. It may help to give us an idea of what China might look like by the middle of this century.

China vs Japan and the US

In China today, concentrations of sulphur dioxide or SO2 in the air are no higher than in some badly polluted Japanese cities back in the 1960s. On this measure alone, it might appear that China’s air pollution problems are no worse.

However, using other metrics, pollution in China appears far worse than Japan or the US in the past. For instance, total suspended particulates in air are currently at levels five or more times what occurred in polluted US cities before the Clean Air Act came into effect in 1970.

It has also recently been estimated that 43% of surface water and 55% of urban groundwater in China is severely polluted, while soil heavy metal pollution affects 10% of arable land.

A lack of historic data makes it difficult to compare soil and water pollution with other industrialising nations at the same point on their growth trajectories. Yet it is hard to believe that the world has ever seen an environmental clean-up challenge as big as the one facing China now.

Pollution priorities

While Chinese citizens may be encouraged by the amounts of money being promised for new environmental controls and remediation, the current major uncertainty is by how much and how quickly pollution can be cleaned up.

From a physical and chemical viewpoint, the main types of pollution can be ranked in order of their amenability to rapid reduction.

At the top of the list is air pollution, which probably constitutes the most serious problem now, but which should improve most rapidly if far-reaching and effective pollution control measures are put into place.

Surface water pollution would be the next most amenable to clean-up, followed by groundwater and soil pollution. The latter two may be less obvious in their immediate health impacts, yet they are no less important. They are also far more difficult to remediate because of their long residence times and slow rates of renewal.

Pollution in rivers and the atmosphere have more widespread and immediate effects, but these parts of the biosphere circulate relatively quickly, allowing pollutants to be flushed or diluted once they stop entering the system.

These different timescales need to be factored into the long-term planning and allocation of resources.

The next great leap forward

Clearly a huge effort, over a long time-frame, targeting all parts of industry and the natural environment, will be required if China’s environment is to be restored to a condition where people feel it is safe to send their children outside, drink local water and eat local food.

On his micro-blog site, Ma Jun recently asked Chinese people to consider whether, if they had been given a choice, they would have chosen to let their country become the world’s most polluted in order to provide cheap goods for export for wealthier nations. Of course, most Chinese people did not get to have a say in this development strategy, and are simply left to live in the degraded and hazardous environments that are its by-product.

Cleaning up China’s vast pollution problems will not be easy - but it is not solely a domestic issue.

A 2008 study in the journal Energy Policy estimated that one-third of China’s greenhouse gas emissions were produced in manufacturing electronics and other goods for export worldwide. Those emissions from exporting industries soared from 230 million tonnes in 1987 to 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005.

For those of us in countries purchasing Chinese and other foreign goods, it is worth considering how what we buy affects other people. If this thought makes you uncomfortable when choosing gifts this Christmas, you do have a choice: buy less, buy local, and buy a gift that will last.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this article.

    Should we hope that, alongside of fixing its deadly pollution, China continues buying as much coal as Australia can mine?

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      For the sake of keeping their population employed and attaining what more and more of the Chinese will aspire to, I'd suggest that there will still be plenty of coal shipped from Australia David.
      In fact it could be that the Chinese might even look to increase supplies from Australia if they are using Indonesian Coal which is not to the same grade as ours.
      What they might also want to look at is to be banning or limiting use of autos and motor scooters which could be part of Shanghai's and Beijing's problems.
      Back to more pedalling power could help.

    2. George Takacs


      In reply to Greg North

      China is the world's leading coal producer, producing each year around ten times as much coal as we export. Not all the coal we export goes to China. They would not miss our coal much if we stopped exporting it to them. It is quite likely that as they seek to address problems such as those referred to in the article that they will cease importing our coal by the end of this decade. We should be prepared.

    3. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Greg North

      "banning or limiting use of autos and motor scooters"

      That's a bit, sounds awfully like control by a Government and a gross infringement of individual rights and freedom. It's also definitely a massive impost on business being unable to operate in a free market economy.
      Surely such Government "green tape regulations" is anathema to all freedom loving people?
      Especially given there is according t the same broad group absolutely no clear evidence of Man-made CO2e caused global warming or climate change occurring (or if there is it's only minimal because there's theories out there that there's been no warming at all in the last 17 years, right?)

      Yes? No? Don't know? Too hard?

    4. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to George Takacs

      Do check this comment with credible reports, but my understanding is that most of Australian coal is higher grade coking coal that China uses in steel making etc as opposed to use in power stations etc. iow it's the quality for specific purposes that underpins our export market to China atm. Indonesian coal and oil also goes to China too, if i recall that correctly (maybe Sth Korea?)

    5. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Greg North

      Once upon a time Opium was a big employer in China and India and elsewhere. It was what fed the coffers of many a free enterprise old world company, many still operating in the world today. ala Jardine Matheson Holdings Co. If more more more is what the Chinese aspire to they could maybe loosen up a bit and expand their range of industry ..... and innovation.

    6. George Takacs


      In reply to Sean Arundell

      Sean, these are International Energy Agency figures for 2012, from their Key World Energy Statistics report, released last month: China produces 3549 million tonnes of coal, imports 278 million. Indonesia exports 383 million tonnes, Australia exports 302 million tonnes. I don't know the current breakdown between coking coal and thermal coal, but several years ago when Australian exports were 250 million tonnes per annum, the breakdown was about 50:50.

    7. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to George Takacs

      Thanks George. Appreciated. I'm reminded by your figures how, no matter who it is (as in Nation), everyone tends to view the world from their own very narrow point of view or little 'bubble of reality'. Australia, the biggie of the coal mining export business. Where would China's growth be without us very important Aussies. Mmmm.
      Oh in case anyone's confused here reading, my other reply to Greg about opium is a 'joke' and not serious, though intentionally dark humour.

    8. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Sean Arundell

      But of course Greg, they are only Chinese after all right? Used to being 'ordered around' do you think that's the way it is. So they probably don't even know about 'freedom', about basic human rights like respect and courtesy and other such high ideals like us, hey mate.

      Yes? No? Don't know? Too hard? :)

  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Based on what Shanghai looked like in 2008 it is no small wonder that not much can be seen in the current photo and a great leap forward will be necessary with all the adjustments it may bring.
    For instance, China may no longer remain the planets factory and they could have unemployment and greater poverty issues to contend with.
    The one huge problem facing the entire planet is how to share around the planets employment when competition is based on the very unlevel WTO playing fields.
    China and…

    Read more
    1. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Greg North

      Well to me this sounds more like thinking that came out of the corn flakes box. But am not certain. Merely a descriptive personal opinion.

    2. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Greg North

      RE "It is beyond time to start thinking outside of the box" well Greg if you're really serious about that, try this on for size ::
      This is why Russell Brand is OUTSIDE THE BOX and this is why YOU SHOULD BE TOO (adults only)

  3. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    If China can be seen as a mini experiment on just how bad things can get before (and if) strong countermeasures are enacted, then it is not looking good for Global warming.

  4. Garry Baker


    The author might be curious to learn more about China's internal security budget - For good reason, it quite exceeds their entire military budget

    Growing pollution in the air and massive water contamination problems, let alone looming water shortages, demand something has to be done before the internal security of the country becomes a problem.

    The thing is, for years there has been growing disquiet about the Princelings who run China Inc. - They turn up to their offices in the big cities and are immune from this pollution - insofar as the worlds very best air conditioners and filtration systems are installed in their office towers - leaving the unwashed millions to fend for themselves. The public know this and they resent it. Thus the current push to avoid tapping into China;s security budget, via another Tiananmen Square incident on a far grander scale

    Indeed, think Arab Spring - except the Chinese call it by another name

  5. Bruce Boyes


    Thanks Matthew for your article. It's good to finally read something that recognises that China's environmental problems are not solely an issue for China. But I think you could have gone much further.

    It seems that the growing Sustainability Correctness that has enveloped Australia is preventing us from talking about the population-standard of living-consumption dynamic that we talked about even ten years ago. Australia's carbon footprint is nearly seven global hectares per person, more than…

    Read more
  6. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    Can China fix it's deadly pollution? Using the latest climate change science, China is on top of the countries fighting climate change: More than 500 barbecue grills seized in three-month campaign are cut up so they cannot be used again
    Of course, this is not fighting climate change, but, intimidation of private individuals on a one-on-one basis. Something the Chinese are renown for. Expect the innovative Chinese style of 'fighting climate change' coming your way soon.

  7. Gary Dean Brisneyland

    Sustainable Environments and Planning Student

    Please excuse any Big Picture analogy here that might simply seem to rip into China. My point is to the care for Environment.

    Ma Jun might also ask whether China (and other emerging/third world) countries) should not be stopped from trading with the world. No coal imports and no cheap exports.

    Australia, for instance would have to stop relying on coal exports for income and it would also require innovation on manufacturing required products for it's people.

  8. Geoff Taylor


    Why should anyone think that very fine particles or gases don't enter the indoors unless they go through efficient filtering systems first? Not all Chinese buildings have those.

    1. Katie Lee

      Medical researcher and sometime journalist

      In reply to Geoff Taylor

      As I understand it, it's a matter of degree; keeping the doors and windows shut during an air pollution spike (or dust storm, for that matter) keeps the level of particulate matter indoors lower than outdoors, at least for a while, so you are exposed to less of it even if you don't have filtering.

      In my own experience, my respiratory symptoms are pretty non-existant in a dust storm if I stay in an air-conditioned building, not very noticeable in a well-sealed modern house, deteriorate quickly in an old Queenslander with gaps everywhere, and get bad within 15 minutes if I go outside. Similarly, I had no trouble in Tehran initially, I suppose because I was in an air-conditioned hotel, but 15 minutes after walking outside on the first day I was wheezing.

  9. Doug Hutcheson


    "The big question now is whether the unprecedented sums of money being be spent on environmental clean-up can buy back clean air, water and soil in the world’s most populous nation." They will find - have already found - that it is easier to dirty than to clean, especially soil and ground water, but also oceans and atmosphere. It is easy to say 'stop polluting': it is challenging to say 'clean up the mess'.

    1. Gary Dean Brisneyland

      Sustainable Environments and Planning Student

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      In Hotels, I think this is the scenario, but I might be wrong (Help Please); Sheratons, Hiltons and such have kitchens that are cleaned as you go. The cleaning bill doesn't come from house-keeping, it's comes from the Food and Beverage budget.

      From this analogy any mess should be cleaned by the action occurring; ergo a carbon tax. But it shouldn't be called a tax, hotel restaurants would be laughed out of town if patrons got a bill breakdown that included a cleaning tax.

  10. Ai Rui Sheng


    I lived in Shanghai for almost twenty years and I never really saw bad smog there. Shanghai is built on a plethora of waterways and is only a few feet above sea level. Fog is a problem in winter and sometimes in summer if there is a sudden temperature drop from 45 C in July and August.
    In Tianjin and Beijing during winter the opposite side of the street is invisible and you cannot put washing outside or it will disolve in the SO2/S03 laden air.
    I cannot believe how stupid people can be. They have all the benefit of reading history, and seeing the mistakes of the European and Asian industrial revolutions, yet they insist on making the same mistakes.
    China would be cleaner if it bought more Australian coal, which has a much lower sulphur content than Chinese coal.