What’s Causing Beijing’s Smoggy Airpocalypse? And What Can Fix It?

Horrifying levels of smog recently turned Beijing into a cyberpunk dystopia. Unable to venture outside safely without masks for fear of respiratory illness, Beijingers hid from the polluted air in their apartments. The city declared a red alert, restricting driving and construction projects. Schools closed, and the Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium loomed ominously in the smoggy cityscape.


Measurements put Beijing’s Air Quality Index (AQI) far above safety limits. Wednesday evening’s PM2.5 AQI was 351 (see image below).

beijing aqi
Beijing’s AQI on the evening of Dec. 9, 2015 (via)

For comparison, here is New York City’s PM2.5 AQI from the same time:

New York City's AQI (via)
New York City’s AQI (via)

PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Their small size makes them particularly dangerous. When inhaled, these fine particles can sink deep into the tissues of the lungs, increasing a person’s risk for disease.

A heavy wind blew away the worst of the smog on Thursday morning, leaving the air at breathable levels, but the death cloud will be back. It happened last year, and the year before and the year before that.

The Cause

In 2014, former Chinese news anchor Chai Jing released Under the Dome, a documentary about China’s pollution problem. The Chinese government banned it, and in a week it disappeared from the internet. Fortunately, somebody put it up on Youtube with English subtitles.

According to Chai, the majority of China’s air pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuel for energy. China burns an immense amount of coal — much of it is scrap coal or unwashed brown coal which produces more ash and carcinogens than regular coal.

As a result, air pollution gets much worse as winter approaches, since factories and power plants start burning more coal to prepare to heat China’s homes in the colder part of the year.

Another factor, particularly in Beijing, is vehicular emissions. As China becomes wealthier, more and more citizens own cars, whose emissions contribute to the smog. Pollution levels rise during rush hour and just before dawn when truckers haul goods into the city. When cities empty during Spring Festival, vehicular traffic shrinks to a trickle, the smog clears and one can occasionally catch a glimpse of bluish sky.

China has vehicular emissions standards, but they’re not enforced; many vehicles lack pollution control devices. Chai interviewed Li Kunsheng, Director of Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, Vehicular Emissions Department, who said that “ninety percent of environmental protection devices are not installed” in Chinese cars, even though the inspectors at the factories put legal emissions standard certificates on these vehicles.

China’s government does impose environmental regulations on its citizens and its industries, but the Environmental Protection Bureau lacks the power to actually enforce those regulations. The EPB can’t do much more to a polluter than send a strongly-worded letter. Instead, enforcement of the EPB’s decisions is left up to municipal governments, who are unlikely to shut down a factory that employs many of the local villagers.

China’s rush to develop economically leaves environmental protection a low priority. The government is loath to slow down production, even though much of what is produced is excessive: steel that no one needs, cities that no one lives in.

These problems are rampant all over China, so why is Beijing’s air particularly bad? Part of it is because Beijing has such a high population: 19 million people, many of them car owners. Another factor, Chai mentions, is that Beijing has mountains to the north and west that trap in smog.

The Gray Death Cloud over Beijing seen from space in October. (via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
The Gray Death Cloud over Beijing seen from space in October. (via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

What Can Be Done?

China’s government now has no choice but to acknowledge that it has a serious problem with pollution, (unlike in 2011, when state-run newspaper China Daily got away with referring to the heavy miasma as “fog” or “mist”). The authorities have issued a red alert, restricting vehicle usage and halting construction. This is a step up from 2013’s proposal to combat air pollution by banning barbecues.

To prepare for the 2008 Olympic games, Beijing lowered its AQI to 88 by reducing industrial pollution all over the city. The move, however temporary, was a massive boon to the health of its citizens. An environmental study found that “babies whose 8th month of gestation occurred during the 2008 Olympics were, on average, 23 grams larger than babies whose 8th month occurred during the same calendar dates in 2007 or 2009,” which suggests that Beijing’s usual poor air quality is stunting its children’s growth. To improve Beijing’s air quality in the near future, China could impose such restrictions again, though that would only export the problem to other cities as the factories move elsewhere.

The South China Morning Post reports:

China will cut emissions of major pollutants in the power sector by 60 percent by 2020, the cabinet said Wednesday after world leaders met in Paris to address climate change… Beijing has pledged to reduce the share of coal in total energy consumption to 60 percent by the end of the decade. It has banned the use of low-grade coals.

Even if low-grade coal is banned, will the government actually enforce the policy? Based on the EPB’s inability to regulate factories or vehicle emissions, probably not, making the vision of a clean-aired China hard to inhale.


(featured image via LWYang)

 

Comments are closed.