China has woken up to the smell of air pollution

A high concentration of organic nitrogen compounds was found in Beijing's smog in January. photograph: feng li/getty images

A high concentration of organic nitrogen compounds was found in Beijing's smog in January. photograph: feng li/getty images


A full-page advertisement in the Beijing News on the first day of the Year of the Snake illustrates how China’s pollution problem is generating enough unease for the government to try to raise public awareness of smog, but also that the authorities are now aware they need to do something.

The ad features an image of a face mask resting against a firecracker about to be lit, beneath a slogan saying: “One firecracker less, one more patch of blue sky”.

The night before that the air had throbbed with ordnance, booming firecrackers and flashing fireworks. The pyrotechnics were much less than last year, after official warnings to ease up after weeks of smog, but they were still enough for the Air Quality Index app that many in Beijing check religiously to read 508 “beyond index”. Protection, such as a mask, is recommended in such instances.

Airborne pollutants

The reading is for average concentrations of PM2.5, airborne pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the blood stream.

The previous day the PM2.5 reading for Beijing had been below 20. The World Health Organisation recommends 24-hour exposure of no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Studies by environmental group Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health reckon exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an last year. Air pollution is said to kill 700,000 people a year in China.

What happens in Beijing is that multiple layers of pollution, from coal-fuelled power-plant emissions to vehicle exhaust, combine to cause the smog, and to fan public ire. Increasingly it’s a political issue.

The World Bank estimates that China has 16 of the 20 most-polluted cities globally and, for several years now, China has been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Last year, the government started to release data on emissions and the people are informing themselves about what they are breathing.

The air has been so bad on some days that there is no denying the smog, flights have been delayed and traffic a disaster. “Beijing Cough” has become common.

Spooked by the public outcry over the current bout of pollution, and increasingly fearful inaction could destabilise single-party rule by the Communist Party, the authorities are finally acting.

Off the charts

The initial reaction in mid-January when pollution started going off the charts was to order some cars, mostly official ones, off Beijing’s roads, close the worst-polluting factories and recommend Beijing’s 20 million residents avoid outdoor activities.

One particularly alarming chart from Bloomberg compared Beijing’s daily peak and average concentrations of PM2.5 with those in a smoking lounge in a US airport.

The 2013 daily average in Beijing was 194 micrograms per cubic metre, with an intraday peak of 886 on January 12, while in 16 US airport smoking rooms the PM2.5 levels averaged 166.6.

“Both natural and human factors contributed to the lingering smog, including coal-burning, pollutant emissions and unfavourable weather conditions,” vice minister of environmental protection Wu Xiaoqing told Xinhua.

“China will formulate regulations, standards and policies to reduce air pollutants and control coal-burning.”

Coal-fired power stations account for over 70 per cent of China’s energy production.

China’s cabinet, the State Council, is aiming to cap the rise in the amount of coal used to make energy by 2015.

Annual energy consumption growth will be set at 4.3 per cent by 2015, slowing from the 6.6 per cent annual growth realised between 2006 and 2010, according to an energy plan related to the 12th Five Year Plan.

The slack will be taken up by renewable energies, such as hydro, wind and solar, plus nuclear power.

Greenpeace is lobbying hard for a coal cap. It also wants “DeNOx” end-of-pipe systems for removing nitrogen oxides in older power stations, and in sectors that are burning a lot of coal, such as the cement industry.

Another major cause of the smog is vehicle emissions. The Chinese Academy of Sciences reckons they account for about one-fifth of the small particulate emissions. Nearly 20 million cars were sold here last year, making China the world leader in car sales.

The sulphur content of vehicle fuel is very high. In Beijing, personal and public vehicles contribute the largest proportion of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants to the atmosphere.

Last week, the State Council said a new, low-sulphur standard for automotive diesel would become mandatory by the end of next year, and that an even stricter, low-sulphur standard for both gasoline and diesel would come into effect by 2017.

Better fuel

This marks a big victory for the ministry of environmental protection, which has fought for the introduction of better quality fuel for years now. The big state-owned oil companies, Sinopec, CNPC and CNOOC, which have political muscle, have successfully resisted such measures for years.

So who will pay for the better quality fuel, which will cost more to refine? In China, the government fixes fuel prices. Higher fuel prices, like anywhere else, are a political issue. In this case, the cost will be borne by the government, the oil companies and the consumers.

Recycling billionaire Chen Guangbiao has been selling cans of fresh air from remote provinces such Xinjiang, to highlight the dangers of smog, and his message is finding traction among the citizenry.

“I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: don’t just chase GDP growth, don’t chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment,” said Mr Chen.