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!

Renewable Energy: At Home & Work

If you missed Climate Café number 3, here’s a summary of the talks. The next café will be on the 6th February and the focus is on food and the impact our food choices have on the environment. Please join us!

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Neil Stuart from Home Energy Scotland

Home Energy Scotland has expert advisors who visit homes and provide free and impartial advice on how we can reduce our energy bills. They can advise on renewables, energy efficiency, waste prevention, and even transport. There are government incentives home owners can access to encourage the uptake of renewables and Home Energy Scotland can help explain how these work. They include feed-in tariffs and interest-free loans. If you can generate your own electricity then you can sell what you don’t use and people typically only use about 25% of what they generate. If you’re interested in investing in renewables then you can access interest-free loans of up to £17,500 per household for renewable energy systems. The Energy Saving Trust has a tool you can use to find out what technologies are suitable for your home. There’s also a green homes network which is a group of homes that have installed renewable energy or made energy efficiency improvements and are offering to share their experience with others who are curious to see how it all works.

Lauren Milton from Élan Hair Design

Lauren Milton shared her inspiring story of how the family-run hair salon in Inverurie went green and has become recognised in the UK as the most eco-friendly and sustainable hairdressing salon. It all started with a switch to LED lighting which not only reduced their CO2 emissions, but also saved them money. From there they went to PV panels, and implemented other measures which resulted in a 68% reduction in water use, a 95% reduction in CO2 emissions, and increased turnover every year. The sustainable business approach has led to lower costs, better PR, and increased customer loyalty.

Erik Dalhuijsen on living offgrid 

Erik lives on a boat which has two solar panels that power everything except for hot water and cooking. He advocates for changing behaviour to match circumstances. For example, when there’s ample supply (the sun is out or the wind is blowing) run the instruments that require power. When there’s no power, turn them off. It’s very feasible to live this way and doesn’t make life difficult.

Dave McGrath from Grampian Energy

Grampian Energy can provide advice for homes and businesses in the North East of Scotland on renewables and energy efficiency. The first thing Dave recommends to those interested in reducing energy costs is to understand your demand and then reduce it. This is the single, easiest thing you can do. Most homes use about 3,500 – 5,500 kWh (kilowatt hour) per year and of that heating consumes around 60-70%.

An easy way to reduce demand is to replace all incandescent bulbs with LED. An incandescent bulb uses around 60W which is £35/year. LED lights use 6W which is £3.50. This is a huge saving for a very small investment. When buying new appliances get ones with a triple-A rating. Also consider the impact of cooking. For example Chinese cooking (e.g., stir fries) consumes very little energy whereas a roast which sits in the oven for several hours uses a lot. Consumer electronics also consume a lot of energy so think twice before buying a huge LCD TV for the teenager’s bedroom.

For heating costs, the amount of heat required to heat a building is equal to the amount that leaves it. The EPC rating of the property is very important and will give you an indication of this heat loss. The biggest loss is through the walls especially in Aberdeen’s granite homes that often have a thin layer of plaster as their only insulation. Some insulation is harder and more expensive to install than others. Roof insulation and double glazing is pretty easy whereas underfloor is hard to do. You can also reduce heat loss by sealing off drafts, especially around doors. Having a timer can also reduce consumption by turning on heating only when it’s needed. You can also turn it off/on for specific rooms according to need. You can fit radiators with TRVs (thermostatic radiator valves) which control the flow of hot water into the radiator allowing you to set the temperature of the room to the level you want.

In terms of renewable energy sources, free sources of power include solar PV, solar thermal, and wind. A solar PV system will set you back about £5200 for a 4KW system.  Micro wind works in rural settings but is not worthwhile in the city. A large system costs around 30k-35k. Other environmentally-friendly heating options are biomass boilers and heat pumps. A biomass boiler is good for people who have their own source of timber. Heat pumps are basically refrigerators in reverse but they’re very efficient producing around 3.5kWh for every 1kWh.


A big thank you to all our speakers for the inspiring and informative talks!

Tidal and wind power in Scotland, and adapting to a post-oil future

The second climate cafè last Tuesday evening was a great success. We heard two terrific talks. The first was on the future of tidal power in Scotland and was delivered by Dr Ian Davies of Marine Scotland Science. Then we heard from Dr Leslie Mabon from Robert Gordon University talking about the adaptation in the North East to a post oil future. Here’s my summary of the two talks.

The Future of Tidal Power in Scotland

Scotland is perfect for tidal and wind power with much of the Scottish coastline suitable. However before any project proceeds there are factors that must be considered. The Scottish coastline is also used by the fishing industry and there are ferry and shipping routes to take into account. There are also lots of protected animal species along the coastline such as birds and sea mammals. All these things are considered before a project is approved.

Stromness, which is in Orkney, is home to The European Marine Energy Centre. It’s a research and testing facility for wave and tidal power and is the only centre of its kind in the world. There are also a couple of offshore wind farms near Aberdeen. There’s one in Aberdeen Bay which is 2km offshore with 11 turbines, 176m high. There’s another just north of Stonehaven known as the Kincardine project which has 5 turbines. Just launched this year is Statoil’s Hywind project which is a floating wind farm and the first of its kind in the world. The cost of electricity generation from wind farms is falling rapidly and will continue to do so. The offshore wind farms are particularly good because there’s less concern from interaction with others. There’s also plenty of space.

Adaptation in the North East to a post oil future

For almost half a century Aberdeen’s fortune’s have been determined by North Sea oil. It created jobs and has made people rich. The average oil industry salary is £64,000, a substantially higher figure than the average wage in the UK which is £27,000. About 10% of all jobs here are in oil and gas. We have become dependent on one industry and this dependancy is a barrier to change. It has become a part of the fabric of the city. For instance, most airports have advertising for perfume, jewellery, or fashion but at Aberdeen airport you’ll see ads for drilling. You can even buy fridge magnets of oil platforms. For these reasons the people here will be resistant to change and maybe even defensive about the problem. What incentive does someone have to accept a much lower salary in a different industry?

What’s the solution?

We need to provide retraining schemes for workers as well as tax breaks and incentives for new industry. As individuals we can pressure politicians to support the transition.

Is it time to get rid of the family car?

We dispensed with the family car three years ago and I’ve never regretted it. We are a family of four: two adults and two primary school children and we found we were able to walk or cycle to most of the places we wanted to go. We are lucky to live in Aberdeen where there’s a fantastic car club, a good bus service, and it’s reasonably flat which makes it good for cycling, although the cycling infrastructure could be better.

The best thing about not owning a car is you’re not tempted to use it for short trips that don’t require a car. It’s too easy to form bad habits and drive 300m up the road when there’s a car sitting in the garage. I know because I used to do that. Now I walk or cycle and get exercise for free. I use the word free in a non-monetary sense: it’s exercise without having to find the time to do it because it happens as a consequence of going from A to B. We’re also producing less pollution which is good for air quality and have lowered our greenhouse gas emissions. Even better, we’re saving money as we no longer have car-related expenses like petrol, depreciation, insurance, maintenance, and MOTs.

One huge cost of car ownership which is often ignored is the space needed to park the millions of privately-owned vehicles. Each parking space is 2m x 5m which is 10m2. Multiply this number by the 31 million cars in the UK and that’s 310 million square metres of land set aside just to park cars. This doesn’t includes all the roads and motorways needed to move them around. It’s an enormous amount of space. Imagine if that space was instead reserved for people, for parks, for trees, or for homes.

Living car-free is liberating. You’ll spend more time outdoors talking to people. You’ll also never have to vacuum the inside of a car ever again. It’s worth it just for that.

Thoughts from our first Climate Café

The first of Aberdeen Climate Action’s (ACA’s) Climate Café series was fantastic. Over 85 people came along to Waterstones to listen and learn about local community renewable projects here in the North East. The speakers inspired us as they shared how their projects were created, and how the community energy schemes were just the first step in their communities’ journey to real sustainable living and also greater community empowerment.

We welcomed Donald Boyd from Greenmyres Community Energy speaking about the Huntly Community Wind Turbine.  Jim Currie from ACEnergy shared his experience with Donside Hydro, Aberdeen’s very own community hydroelectric power plant. Annabel Pinker from The James Hutton Institute highlighted a variety of fascinating community projects around Scotland. A common theme was one of empowerment of the individuals and communities involved in the creation and management of these projects. Having an independent stream of income means that these communities can develop more schemes to help their community and educate and inspire others.

The energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable and the feedback we received is that people felt inspired to start their own projects. This is exactly what the Climate Café series is all about. Waterstones were terrific and created a wonderful atmosphere. There was great coffee served by Sloth Coffee as well as delicious home baking. Everyone had a great time eating, drinking, chatting and connecting after the talks.

We’re looking forward to the next Café on Tuesday 5th December, Waterstones, 7-9pm – Fast Forward to the Future: New Energy Sources and Post Oil, where we will be hearing about Marine Energy and the North East Post Oil. Please join us.