By Justin Shuttleworth

Beijing’s record-breaking pollution levels over the past winter and spring have made headlines worldwide, casting new-found scrutiny on China’s long-standing air quality issues.  If you are currently living in China or travel there frequently for business, then this phenomenon can shift from being from an abstract news item to a very personal health concern in a short time, particularly if you suffer from asthma or another respiratory condition.  With all of the recent media focus on China’s so-called “toxic smog,” I thought I would pass on a few things I learned over the years I lived there and possibly dispel some myths.

#1  It’s as bad as you’ve heard:

The World Bank’s report on the most polluted cities in the world listed China has having 16 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world in regards to air particles. Air pollution and smog are so bad in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai that airports must sometimes shutdown due to lack of visibility. The World Health Organization has estimated that many northern Chinese cities (including Beijing) have almost 20 times the safe and acceptable levels of suspended airborne particles. Furthermore, the WHO also estimates that nearly 700,000 people die prematurely every year, due to poor air quality.

#2: The Chinese know it’s bad:

In January of this year the Chinese state-controlled media published very frank and critical articles describing the sickening pollution that had enveloped Beijing and other parts of Northern China. Unprecedented media coverage of the real and present danger of the air quality is a clear signal that the Chinese government’s official policy toward environmental concerns is changing rapidly. Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert at the Chinese Academy for for Engineering, was quoted as saying, “that without intervention, air pollution would replace smoking as #1 cause of lung cancer in China.”  As recently as the 18th party congress (held last November) out going President Hu Jintao directly addressed the national problem of air quality.

#3:  It’s bad because of growth:

Particularly since the economic reforms of the last three decades resulted in tremendous advances in consumption and living standards, the enormous Chinese population of 1.3 billion has put staggering demands upon infrastructure and energy resources.  Although China’s population growth now sits at .47% (156th in the world) this was not the case over most of the last two centuries. Between 1952 and present day, China’s population has more than doubled. From 1952 (China’s first modern census) until the early 1980’s when the one child policy was introduced, China had an unprecedented population growth rate of 20% per decade.

How does China supply this vast population with energy?  Over 80% of Chinese electricity is produced by coal burning. Much of the coal is the nefarious soft coal, a cheap, abundant, unrefined coal with high sulfur content. Deutsche Bank analysts have recently released a report that coal consumption is likely to go up as the economy continues to grow and car ownership increases.

#4: It’s not the worst comparatively (even now):

Because of China’s place in the world their pollution problems often get more media coverage than other highly polluted locations in other countries. But, the reality is there are many highly polluted locales throughout the world. Environmental disasters at Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima have had extremely grave consequences on the local populace. The 2005 WHO air quality guide has cities like Karachi, New Deli, and Cairo well over Beijing’s annual concentration of PM 10 particulates. Cities in developing countries often have higher concentrations of Sulfur dioxide as well. Harare, Kitwe, and Mexico City are among cities with higher annual sulfur dioxide levels. England’s coal-based industry of the Victorian era through post World War II was notorious for dumping large amounts of pollutants into the environment. The pollution was so bad in England that, an event dubbed the “London Fog” in early 1952, led directly to the premature deaths of 12,000 people.

#5: The Chinese government is trying to do something about it:

China has taken significant steps in the last decade to curb air pollution and reduce harmful emissions. Perhaps the most symbolic yet still important step is the growing public and official recognition of the problem within China itself. Perhaps because of the tremendous amount of pollution or just the media coverage surrounding it, China finds itself in the curious position of  seizing a leadership position in the global fight against climate change.  China’s landmark decision to put carbon caps on heavy carbon producing facilities would have been unheard of a few years ago. In a political climate that constantly pushes for economic growth of 8% or higher, China also finds itself the world leader in clean energy subsidies by investing over US$51 billion in clean energy initiatives.

China is also among the world’s leaders in wind and solar energy. A staggering 70 GW of new wind power will be installed in China over the next five years.  Even with all these efforts China still faces a monumental task of cleaning up their air. The aforementioned Deutsche Bank report cautioned that even with a reduced rate of 5% economic growth and aggressive carbon and emission standards, China is unlikely to meet its goal of 35mg of particulate matter per cubic meter by 2030.  In fact, pollution by then could be much worse barring drastic changes.

justin smallJustin lived and worked in the Middle Kingdom from 2006 to 2010 as a sales manager for a high-end Western brand, doing business in some of the largest cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.