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Deadly air: the smog shrouding China’s future

Beijing has been smothered by a dense and dangerous smog this month, which has set new air pollution records over several days. The World Health Organization advises that the acceptable level of fine particles…

Heavy smog is descending on Beijing again, a week after record air pollution choked China’s capital and much of northern China. AAP/EPA/Adrian Bradshaw

Beijing has been smothered by a dense and dangerous smog this month, which has set new air pollution records over several days.

The World Health Organization advises that the acceptable level of fine particles in the air measuring less than 2.5 microns - known as PM2.5 - should be no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Above 300, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency warns that outdoor activity becomes “hazardous”, even for healthy adults.

On January 12 this year in Beijing, the PM2.5 pollution hit 886 - officially off the charts for dangerous air quality.

But the problem is not limited to Beijing. Many other cities in China have also been suffering from what is described as the worst air pollution in history.

Gasping for breath

I lived in Beijing for 10 years, long enough to give me chronic bronchitis. For years, I was on antibiotics and codeine phosphate solution; occasionally I also suffered from skin problems. It was only after I moved to Australia that my bronchitis gradually began to get better.

One of my friends, now based in Beijing and working for the national television station, also suffers from chronic diseases like rhinitis. She recently told me that her rhinitis has relapsed due to the smoggy air outside - but she has found that her symptoms miraculously vanish when she travels out of Beijing to cities in southern China.

The hazardous smog has created a surge of paediatric and geriatric outpatients in hospitals for respiratory diseases. Beijing Children’s Hospital, for example, had seen 9000 patients per day, a third of them with respiratory problems.

Air pollution is a deadly problem. A study published last month by Peking University and environmental group Greenpeace estimated that there were 8,572 premature deaths in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Beijing in 2010 that could be linked to PM2.5 air pollution.

In the meantime, face masks are selling fast. The bestseller is the N95 mask, which claims to be able to block tiny PM2.5 particles. Not by choice, a mask has become the must-wear fashion item on the streets of many Chinese cities.

The skies over Beijing and northeastern China, on a relatively good day on January 3 this year (above), and on January 14 (below) when the air in Beijing was “hazardous”, but still less than half of the record high pollution of January 12. NASA

Tiny pollutants sparking national outrage

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.

PM2.5 particles are about 1/30th the width of a human hair - making them small enough to invade even the narrowest airways. These are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks.

The PM2.5 level of pollution is held to be a more accurate reflection of air quality than other standards of measurement, but until relatively recently it was not made available to the public in China.

The term PM2.5 in now widely known among ordinary Chinese people, as debate has raged on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. There have been strong calls even from state-controlled media for the government to publish truthful environmental data, and take stronger action to improve air quality and tackle environmental pollution.

This discussion is not new. The public debate over air quality, and PM2.5 in particular, began in December 2011 on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, when it came to light that air-quality monitoring results released by Beijing’s weather forecast station were often significantly lower than those from the US Embassy in Beijing.

While the results from the embassy often described Beijing’s air quality as “hazardous” or “dangerous”, the Beijing weather forecast station would describe the pollution as “minor”. Both sources defended their stances by saying that the difference resulted from using different measurement standards, but the issue is so sensitive that it caused some diplomatic conflict.

These truth about the differences in these measurements were revealed on Weibo by several celebrities. This caused a public outcry online, with many thousands of people urging the government to apply the tighter PM2.5 standard.

As a result, in February 2012 the Chinese State Council added PM 2.5 to the newly revised National Ambient Air Quality Standard and applied it to dozens of pilot cities.

The areas of China with the worst PM2.5 pollution, 2008-2010. NASA

Green talk versus action

Following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Chinese government published its national strategies for sustainable development in China’s Agenda 21 White Paper, issued on March 1994.

Officially, this marked a shift in direction towards a more sustainable path of national development. Contrary to the previous Marxist and Maoist view of human conquest over nature, the new approach took a stand against the over-exploitation of natural resources, and spoke of the need for public action to protect the environment. However, turning policy into practice has proved difficult as China has rapidly industrialised.

With many Chinese people experiencing the unplanned consequences of industrialisation and urbanisation over the past decade, more environmental protests have begun to pop up.

For example, in 2003, a large campaign was launched by a coalition of Chinese and international environmental groups to stop a proposed dam on the Salween River. The following year, the then-Premier Wen Jiabao intervened and announced the suspension of the plan, saying more careful environmental and social impact assessment was needed.

In June 2007, more than 10,000 people in Xiamen demonstrated against the building of a paraxylene factory by a Taiwanese company. The media in Xiamen were temporarily blocked by the local government and people had to use short text messages and online forums to spread information and organise street protests. The incident was solved smoothly later that year with the government promising to move this project to a remote peninsula.

In July 2012, a protest took place in Qidong, Jiangsu province, against a proposed pipeline for a Japanese paper company, which would have dumped industrial waste into the sea. Thousands of citizens took to the streets calling for the government to cancel the project. The incident was appeased after the local government promised to permanently suspend the project.

Nowadays, new technologies and social media are widely adopted by environment activists and groups. In the current dispute about air pollution in Beijing, for example, the public use mobile applications and Weibo to obtain information, initiate online green talks and mobilise offline activities.

Escalating protests and unrest

Environmental degradation and public protests against are a challenge for most governments worldwide. But in countries where the policy-making process is not transparent, environmental protests are prone to escalating to social unrest, or even becoming threats to the state.

In China, where maintaining stability is still an overriding goal in social management, the situation is complex. As more people realise sustainability is now a matter of life and death to everybody, they are finding more ways to express, and to resist, for the good of themselves as well as the next generation.

Responding to the current pollution crisis, the city of Beijing has just proposed rules that would increase fines for heavy vehicle emissions and force more factory shutdowns when smog reaches dangerous levels.

But China’s leaders must do more to protect the environment nationally, otherwise people may become environmental refugees but find no unpolluted land left where they can go.