Beijing view: Choking smog could catalyse climate action

By Terry Townshend

Beijing is suffocating. For the last few weeks, China’s capital has been blanketed in a toxic cloud, primarily caused by coal burning, vehicle emissions and construction dust.  

Beijing’s geography doesn’t help – it is surrounded by mountains on three sides and sits in a bowl where the air has a tendency to stagnate.

The colder than usual winter, resulting in increased burning of coal for heating and electricity, and an unusually still period of weather have combined to produce a period of persistent smog.

Many people I have spoken to have told me it has been the worst period of air pollution they can remember.

The thick air has had consequences.  There has been a steep rise in the number of residents visiting hospitals with respiratory complaints, particularly the old, very young and those with existing conditions.

Room with a view: Beijing’s choking smog has dramatically reduced visibility (Pic: Terry Townshend)

Many ordinarily healthy people are coughing and spluttering their way to and from work.  The official English-language China Daily newspaper said on 14 January that Beijing was becoming better known for “Beijing Cough” than it was for Peking Duck or Peking Opera.

But it is not just these short-term effects that are a worry.

Personally, I know of two people – friends of friends who have lived in Beijing all their lives – who, despite never smoking, have been diagnosed with lung cancer in recent months.

That is no scientific study but chimes with the growing concerns of Beijingers about the long-term health effects of breathing such polluted air.

According to “conservative estimates”, a World Bank report from 2007 put the economic burden of premature mortality and morbidity associated with air pollution at 157.3 billion yuan in 2003.  That’s more than 1 per cent of GDP.

This winter the situation has got so bad that even the state-run local and national media, as well as finally acknowledging that the haze is not simply ‘fog’ or ‘mist’ is calling for action and beginning to question whether the benefits of China’s growth model are worth the environmental degradation.

The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, ran a front page editorial demanding: “Let us clearly view managing environmental pollution with a sense of urgency.”

Policy paralysis

So what is the pollution that is poisoning Beijing’s air?  And what can be done to tackle it?

The air pollution is made up of particles in the atmosphere.  Particles come in many shapes and sizes, and can be solid particles or liquid droplets. Experts divide the particles into two major groups – PM10 and PM2.5.

The bigger particles are known as “PM10” (particulate matter up to 10 micrometers in size) and the smaller particles “PM2.5” (particles up to 2.5 micrometers).

The larger PM10 particles can cause coughs, stinging eyes or a runny nose but most of them get captured by the body’s defenses, so they are not thought to cause too many long-term severe effects.

The smaller particles (100 times thinner than a human hair) are small enough to slip through our defenses and can penetrate deep into the lungs.  It is these particles that are thought to pose most risk to human health.

The World Health Organisation recommends a PM2.5 concentration of no more than 30 micrograms per cubic metre.  At its worst, levels of PM2.5 peaked at 993 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing on 12 January – more than 30 times the WHO’s maximum recommended concentration.

With coal use predicted to increase, despite China’s record levels of investment in renewable energy, and car ownership booming, the trends are moving in the wrong direction and it is difficult to see how the capital’s air will improve.

China consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined

However, there are signs of hope.  Beijing’s mayor has this week shouted out through the murk that tackling the capital’s air pollution is his top priority and the public outcry, especially from the influential and growing middle classes, is something that the ruling Party will find very hard to ignore.

If the queue outside my local air purifier stockist is anything to go by, an increasing number of residents are both aware of, and want to reduce, the risks of exposure to air pollution.

So what can be done?  Reducing coal burning, particularly close to the capital, must be the most effective way to reduce pollution levels.  Switching to cleaner fuels, such as gas, will help.

Improving energy efficiency will help.

Investing in best available technology for existing power plants – more efficient furnaces and more effective filters –  will help.

And controlling Beijing’s infamous traffic through congestion charging – similar to London’s scheme (investment opportunity for UK Plc) – and greater investment in, and promotion of, electric vehicles and public transport would have an impact.

China’s rapid growth has not been without its costs.  And the deterioration of Beijing’s air has, up to now, been accepted as a price worth paying for the significant increase in the standard of living of its residents.

This winter may prove to be the point at which that changed.

Terry Townshend is Deputy Secretary General for Policy at GLOBE International in Beijing

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