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Behind the Great Wall of Smog: Air Pollution in Beijing, China

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala for Aberdeen Climate Action

I moved to Beijing in February. Grey sky and bad air quality became everyday life. Smog has affected my lifestyle significantly. I cannot open my window whenever I want. I cannot go jogging whenever I want. Before going outside even for brief shopping errands, I need to check the air quality index (AQI) to know whether it is necessary to put my mask on.

All these changes made me reconsider what I was told before moving here for a semester abroad. Were they right? Is there no blue sky in China?

First things first. According to recent studies by the Greenpeace, China is indeed a country with one of the worst air qualities on the planet. The autumn of 2018, for instance, saw a sharp decline in air quality compared to previous years. More astonishingly, but somehow unsurprisingly, both the WHO and the Berkeley Institute concluded that more than 1 million Chinese people, and around 22 million tons of crops, fall victim to air pollution annually. Such studies show that dealing with poor air quality is not merely a matter of culture shock but a serious and hazardous problem.

But why? What is the cause of this worrying development? Well, for one, China’s almost miraculous economic ascent in the world does not come cheap. With its economic development as one of the key producers for, well, everything, China’s march to the peak of exporting nations has come at a price. While the country leads the world in exports with 2.1 trillion dollars (compared to all the EU with 1.9 trillion), it also is among the world leaders in air pollution. While different studies will place China at different ranks, it usually ranks in the top 20 (mind you that China has vast, unindustrialized region in the West and Southwest lowering the overall country average). However, the fact that 22 Chinese cities are listed in the top 50 of the most polluted cities on the planet (with 25 being attributed to India) speaks volumes.

So where does the smog come from? Well, all that development requires energy, and the country’s goods and people require transportation. So, these worrying developments of the air quality does not come as a surprise considering that the population of the 21 million large city of Beijing has increased by 74%, and the number of vehicles by 335% by 2017 compared to 20 years earlier.

Beijing, the capital of the country, offers a fascinating glimpse at this very dirty problem. On the surface, the city’s AQI can still exceed 680 on the AQI scale (150 is considered hazardous according to the WHO) on some days. However, on other days, patient observers can catch a bit of blue sky, especially during the summer months. So which one is it? Dirty or clean? Both or neither?

Officially, China has attempted to tackle the air pollution problem since 2000. However, only since 2010 has the approach made its way into the country’s agenda (one could speculate if the eyes of the world resting on the Olympics in 2008 played a role), with binding targets for harmful particles for carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides as well sulfur dioxides. With these commitments, as well as immense investments in the following years (e.g. 54bn USD in 2013), Beijing has seemingly solved its problem and reduced its count of the most dangerous PM2.5 to an average of 50-100 on the AQI in 2018, compared to 150 in 2008. But this exemplifies the greater issue at hand. Contrary to what official sources try to make you believe, Beijing has not completely solved its problem, but partially pushed it away- quite literally! According to recent studies, the greater Beijing area has seen improvements of 34% between 2012 and 2017 while the rural provinces surrounding the mega city have seen increases of 5% annually. Clearly there have been improvements in the bigger cities that can be seen and felt, but rural areas in the country increased their production, and with it their pollution, to relieve bigger cities.

The apparent duality of solution and problem is visible in the root cause of it all: The energy demand fueled by coal.  As China ramped up its production at staggering rates, so its demand of coal increased and thus creating its air quality problem. After years of supplying the world, China has realized the killing consequences of its industrial growth and is taking steps to ameliorate it: China has become both one of the greatest manufacturers and applicants of renewable energy technology. From as far back as 2013, China has been the largest producer of renewable energy on the planet however, because of its massive demand for energy, renewables only accounted for 26% of its 2017 power production. And while in 2014, the Chinese Energy Counsel agreed that no more coal plants would be built after 2030, a recent request by the industry demands the building of 300 to 500 new plants before 2030, which, according to Greenpeace, would equal a new coal plant being built every 2 weeks for 12 years!

What that means for the air quality problem for China is evident. While the country has arguable invested in the renewables sector, and making major cities cleaner, any threat to the country’s economic growth – such as the trade war with the US in 2018 – or any sign of a slowing growth rate are met with investments in quick and dirty energy, such as coal.

This behavior extends far beyond China’s borders though. This is not about me, not being able to run or shop when I fancy. This is about the collective, our planet. While every country, trying or not, is currently struggling to meet the demands of the Paris Accords to combat Global Warming and Climate Change, the rate of China’s continued investment in fossil energy could undo the rest of the world’s efforts to limit our planet’s warming to 1.5°C by 2030. If the Chinese industry demands are met, China, who is required to drop 20% of its coal capacity in the next 12 years, would actually increase its coal powered capacity by 20% instead. If that happens, failing both the 1.5°C target and the 2°C goal for 2050, having to wear a mask when shopping will be the least of our problems!

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