China’s Smog Crisis

China’s Smog Crisis


The Airpocalypse

No, it’s not a low budget, made-for-television science fiction movie brought to you by the same people who gave us Sharknado. “Airpocalypse” is an actual term which has been used by millions of people in Beijing and throughout the rest of China to describe the cloud of smog that now perpetually hangs over the city and shrouds cityscapes and skylines behind a  gray mist of pollutants.

Over the past year it’s become increasingly apparent that China is in the midst of an ever-worsening environmental crisis. A smog crisis. While the smog problem might have reached a boiling point this year, china’s pollution woes are anything but new – it was over five years ago when China announced that they would undertake emergency measures including the closure of over 150 factories and a temporary halt on outdoor construction in Beijing in order to accommodate Olympic athletes who were concerned that high pollution levels would interfere with their performance. This year, however, has been one of unprecedented levels of smog as well as a number of new developments including a smog measurement system which made pollution quantifiable and provided real time measurements of pollution levels in over 70 cities throughout China.

One change that sparked a dramatic shift in public discourse and media discussion of China’s  growing pollution problem was the government’s decision to begin publishing the Air Quality Index (AQI) on January 1st, 2013. The AQI measures and publishes the level of  “fine particles” in the air in a number of heavily populated cities throughout the country. These fine particles, as defined by the EPA, are particulate matter which is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and is able to pass through the nose and throat and enter the lungs. This definition for particulate matter has led to the popularization of “PM2.5” a phrase used by many Chinese social bloggers as a colloquialism for pollution. Publishing the AQI and making data about PM2.5 levels available to Chinese citizens marked a breakthrough of sorts for environmental activists because prior to the AQI, the Chinese government heavily restricted data concerning PM2.5 levels, choosing to release it only for Bejing and a select few cities. Even then the government elected to publish pollution figures periodically, rather than on a daily basis as the AQI does.

While the AQI’s system of daily reporting is groundbreaking in and of itself, just as important is the type of pollution it measures. Until 2013, the Chinese government choose only to release data on PM10 (particulate matter falling between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter)  to the public and to many outside scientists. Researchers from the United States and elsewhere, concerned that pollution created problems which transcend national boundaries, were forced to conduct research using satellites which attempted to approximate and map out PM2.5 pollution levels in order to fill in the gaps due to a lack of ground-based monitoring stations.

The data collected by satellites showed that almost every Chinese province had PM2.5 levels above 20 micrograms per cubic meter which is the level which the World Health Organization has labeled as unsafe. Two provinces, Shandong and Henan, had concentrations above 50 mcg/m3 . Even though the satellites recorded pollution levels far above what most health scientists and environmentalists consider to be safe, it’s still widely believed that the satellite measurements are an under-calculation of China’s actual pollution levels. In 2012, when satellites served as the primary data source for PM2.5 concentrations, the data collected represented average pollution level across multiple days as well as multiple cities. As a result, these measurements failed to account for large spikes in pollution which the AQI now tracks with its day to day “spot” measurements which take 1 – 3 hour averages for specific locations.


As the chart above shows, the PM2.5 concentrations in three major Chinese cities have risen significantly since 2012. A majority of days now see air pollution that registers above 100 on the Air Quality index, which according to the chart’s own index, is the point at which “active children and adults should limit prolonged outdoor exposure” due to “increased likelihood for respiratory symptoms”. With greater amounts of research being conducted and a trove of newly available data from 2013, it’s now possible to study both the causes and the effects of China’s growing pollution crisis.

A Heavy Toll

One of the most concerning effects of China’s pollution is its effect on public health. With pollution and smog levels at all time highs, the health impact has been magnified over recent months. The South China Morning Post reported that during the height of China’s most recent pollution crisis, the Beijing Children’s hospital was admitting and treating over 7,000 children per day for respiratory ailments. The hospital singled out increased pollution and smog as the culprit for the spike in the number of children being treated. At the same time, a number of hospitals in Beijing and other populous cities reported five-year highs for patients coming in to be treated for respiratory ailments. In addition to the rising number of people afflicted with health concerns due to pollution, recent studies have found that the number of premature deaths caused by smog and pollution in China is hitting record levels. In 2010 alone, a full three years before smog levels in China hit record highs in January of 2013, smog contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths.

The Global Burden of Disease Study, conducted by The Lancet, a British medical journal,  found that there were 1.2 million premature deaths in China in which outdoor air pollution was a contributing factor accounted. Those 1.2 million premature deaths accounted for forty percent of the global total for premature deaths which were precipitated by pollution. The study, which was supported by the Health Effect Institute, a research organization which receives a portion of it’s funding from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, found that “ambient particulate matter pollution” (a measure of particulate matter pollution which accounts for both PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations) was the fourth-leading risk factor for death in China – only surpassed by such common risk factors as diet, high blood pressure, and smoking. Globally, air pollution ranks seventh on the list of risk factors.

Just as surprising as the jarring findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study themselves, is the fact that they weren’t suppressed by the government and were made available to the Chinese people. This transparency stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese government’s previous attempt to suppress research on the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution. In 2007, the government censored a World Bank report titled “Cost of Pollution in China” by redacting sections of the report which estimated that during the 2000s, pollution was responsible for 350,000 – 400,000 deaths in China.

The long term health implications of China’s smog crisis are just as severe. A comprehensive study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tsinghua University found that during the 1990s, air pollution in Northern China reduced life expectancy by an average of 5.5 years. Researchers estimated that a total of 2.5 billion years worth of life expectancy were lost for the over 500 million people in Northern China who have been affected by unhealthy levels of pollution for multiple decades. Additionally, this October the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that there was no sufficient evidence to confirm the link between exposure to outdoor air pollution and lung cancer as well as evidence that air pollution leads to an increased risk for bladder cancer. Dr. Kurt Straif, the IARC’s unit head pointed to carcinogens contained in air pollution as the agent responsible for cancer. This link is one which doesn’t come as surprise to many Chinese citizens who had long assumed the link between the two. In Beijing, cancer has overtaken heart disease as the number one cause of death and in Shanghai, cancer claims the lives of 36,000 people annually according to the Health and Family Planning Commission.

In addition to the myriad of public health concerns, new research has shown that  China’s “airpocalypse” has had a heavy economic toll as well.  The World Bank in their assessment of pollution in China found that the health costs of pollution in China amounts to 4.3% of gross domestic product which translated to $112 billion in 2005, the last year for which this measurement was calculated. Scaled to China’s GDP in 2013, the economic toll per year of unrestrained pollution could exceed $354 billion dollars per year. The report also concluded that the non-health economic impact of air and water pollution in China amount to an additional 1.5% of GDP per year.

A study conducted by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change found that the economic impact of pollution will continue to grow so long as China’s economy grows. With rising wages and an increasing urban population, every man-hour of labor that’s lost due to pollution and it’s associated health problems has a greater economic toll and results in a sharper decline in consumption. While some environmental advocates are hopeful that the growing economic cost of pollution might prove to a strong enough catalyst to get the Chinese government to think seriously about environmental reform, these hopes seem to be panglossian at best. As the study also notes, “the overall Chinese economy grew at a much faster rate than the absolute value of the pollution-induced consumption loss”. So long as industrial production responsible for the pollution that’s ravaged Chinese cities continues to have a net positive economic impact, the Beijing government will likely be hesitant to act.

Dark, polluted skies and impaired visibility due to an impenetrable layer of smog have become the new norm for many Chinese cities

Who’s to Blame?

With air so noxious that many Chinese citizens have made made a hobby out of posting pictures of themselves wearing face masks on the popular social media website Sina Weibo, it’s worth examining what’s caused pollution to rise so dramatically over the past decade as well as the past year. While many environmentalists are eager to ascribe the high concentration of CO2, NO2, PM2.5 and other pollutants to industrialization and growth, there are a number of other factors besides the proliferation of coal-fired plants and pollution emitting factories  that explain why China’s pollution woes have become so dramatic as of late.

A study conducted by Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at MIT found that partly to blame for a dramatic spike in pollution levels is a government program which provides free heating to households in Northern China during the winter. The program distributes coal to homes and businesses in Chinese provinces which are north of the Qinling mountain range and the Huai River. Professor Greenstone and his team of researchers believe that this program, despite it’s noble intentions, is responsible for causing PM2.5 levels in Northern China to have been on average 55% higher in the North than they are in the South. His research, in addition to shedding light on the  unequal geographic distribution of pollution in China, also provides scientists with one explanation as to why smog and PM2.5 levels are higher during the winter months, including a period in Janauary 2013 when the AQI recorded pollution levels above 500 or “beyond index”.

 A third culprit behind China’s smog crisis is the power wielded by the state-owned China Nationional Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Sinopec group. These two powerful energy companies have used their significant clout to prevent the implementation of stricter emissions standards for trucks and buses running on diesel fuel. The conflict between China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and state-owned enterprise, this time in the field of oil and natural gas, is anything but new. For decades there has been a perpetual tug-of-war between various ministries and the powerful state-owned enterprises which have attempted to subvert their power in order to continue the ceaseless quest for economic growth and prosperity.

The struggle between the Ministry of Environmental Protection and CNPC and Sinopec in particular is one which has existed for quite some time.  In 2011,  Zhang Lijun, China’s deputy environmental minister sat down with executives from both companies and made clear that he was unwilling to compromise on the implementation of new “China IV” emission standards that would have resulted in cleaner fuel that was more expensive to produce. At this meeting both companies expressed their willingness to comply with the new standards by the Lunar New Year in 2012, but environmental ministry tests since then have revealed  that both companies have yet to comply.

One reason why these SOEs and the interest groups which represent then have been able to evade and undercut the authority of the MEP is because of the complicated bureaucracy which controls how emissions standards and other environmental regulations are set. With close to a dozen different agencies tasked with shaping China’s environmental and energy policy, the MEP doesn’t have control over – and isn’t even consulted on – certain policy issues, with increasing emission standards being such a policy

Ding Yang, Deputy Director of the Vehicle Emissions Control Center, summed up the bureaucratic hurdle faced by environmental advocacy groups and environmental regulators by stating that 

“Even a powerful environment minister is of no use. You need the highest leaders like Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang to really value the work of the environment ministry.”

While automobile emissions don’t account for the entirety of China’s air pollution, they to threaten to exacerbate existing environmental concerns. A report released by Deutsche Bank found that the number of passenger cars on Chinese roadways, which currently stands at 90 million, is on track to hit 400 million by 2030 as a rapidly growing middle class becomes increasingly able to purchase automobiles. Along with a rise in the number of cars on the road, the percentage of PM2.5 which comes from fuel emissions is likely to rise from it’s current 22%.

What Can Be Done?

With many Chinese policymakers intent on pushing ahead with industrial progress even at the expense of environmental health, the government has tasked scientists with coming up with alternative ways to stymie public outrage over smog levels which are  quickly becoming unbearable. According to the South China Morning Post, one such creative solution that’s currently being researched by the Beijing Weather Modification Office is pumping liquid nitrogen into the atmosphere.

Liquid nitrogen, which can be up to three times as cold as dry ice, is primarily used as an industrial coolant found in refrigerators and other household appliances. Nonetheless, He Hui and a team of government-funded researchers at the Weather Modification Center believe that spraying a mist of liquid nitrogen from tanks at least ten meters above the ground can be an effective way to combat smog. The science behind spraying liquid nitrogen suggests that the chemical will cause crystals to form on small particulate matter and other pollutants causing those smog-inducing chemicals to fall to the ground and out of the air. Some researchers are also testing whether the vaporized nitrogen could prevent polluted air above where it’s sprayed from reaching ground level and being breathed in by citizens.

Liquid nitrogen isn’t the only long shot approach which China has pursued in order to put off enacting hard-hitting environmental reforms which will invariably stunt growth. In the run up to the 2008 Olympics, when China entered the spotlight and was heavily criticized by some in the international community due to it’s heavy pollution, authorities in Beijing began a controversial pollution control method known as cloud seeding. Cloud seeding, much as the name suggests, involves clouds being seeded with certain chemical such as silver iodide and solid carbon dioxide. While cloud seeding provided some short term success ahead of the Beijing Olympics, it’s not viewed as a viable solution due to the high cost of using aircraft to deploy the tremendous amount of chemicals needed for cloud seeding to be successful. The second strike against cloud seeding is its reduced effectiveness during the winter months when air pollution is most severe.

Whatever the solution may be, it’s clear that long gone are the days when China could ignore the problem of air pollution in it’s major cities. As more and more citizens take to the internet and small scale social protests to demand change it looks as if the government is willing to concede some ground, even if it’s only a tracking system to remind citizens of how bad the pollution actually is. Only time will tell how China addresses a problem which may come to define its final push towards economic maturity.

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  • Omar Taylor#1

    December 23, 2013

    Very interesting read. Things like this really shouldn’t go unnoticed for too long.


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