Talking Point

Clearing the air

A long way to go, but at least Beijing is acknowledging its pollution problem

The problem can’t be masked any longer: air pollution hit new record on Saturday

London’s history of smoky air is recorded in pictures, prose and song. The impressionist Claude Monet came to the British capital to paint its smog at the turn of the 19th century, while the city’s “pea-soupers” were celebrated in the Sherlock Holmes series and the tales of Jack the Ripper. As late as 1937 the air was still gloomy enough for mention in George Gershwin’s Foggy Day in London Town.

But any sense of sentimentality about the capital’s smoky air was to be lost forever in early December 1952, after a menacing smog gripped the city.

Reports record how the grimy pall prompted traffic chaos across the capital, and forced the abandonment of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells theatre when the audience lost sight of the stage. It even penetrated the inner archives of the British Library. Much more seriously, the smog seeped into London’s overstretched hospitals, making it possible to write one’s name on the sooty surfaces of baths and washbasins. Not that hospital staff had the time to try, with thousands of choking patients arriving at the emergency wards over the four days of crisis. When the killer fog finally lifted at least 4,000 were dead, in the worst peacetime catastrophe in London’s modern history.

Sixty years on, Beijing was also choking on its worst bout of air pollution on record this week. The toxic air reduced visibility to a few metres, hospitals were swamped with patients, children were kept indoors and panicking residents bought up dwindling stocks of protective masks and air purifiers.

There was even online chatter that Beijing might have to give up its status as China’s capital, because of its vulnerability to filthy air. But London’s own crisis of 1952 was a turning point, culminating in clean air legislation and a steady improvement in the city’s environment. In this week’s Talking Point we compare Beijing’s current experience to London’s sixty years ago, and ask whether the awful conditions of the last few days might also lead to change.

How bad is the situation in Beijing?

The scenes have been shocking, despite claims from the authorities less than a month ago that the trend is one of improvement for the capital.

The China Daily reported on December 31 that Beijing’s air quality has been getting better for 14 straight years, with pollution levels for PM10 particles (airborne droplets measuring 10 microns in size or smaller), sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide all dropping by another 4% last year.

The local environmental protection bureau said the improvement came about despite many more people living in Beijing, a higher level of car ownership and hundreds of new construction projects in the city. The bureau’s spokesman said use of natural gas as a fuel source had reduced coal usage by 700,000 tonnes in Beijing last year, and that 122 heavily polluting companies had been forced to close as part of the clean-up campaign.

So what has gone wrong this month? The winter weather is definitely playing a part (London’s worst smogs were experienced in winter months too) with local citizens demanding more heating during the current cold snap. Windless conditions and meteorological effects like temperature inversion have also meant that the stifling mix of smoke and fog was trapped shroud-like above the city.

“The pollution has affected large areas, lasted for a long time and is of great density. This is rare for Beijing in recent years,” Zhang Dawei, director of the city’s environmental monitoring centre, explained to reporters on Monday.

And the health impact?

Fortunately, Beijing’s pollution hasn’t been nearly as life threatening as London’s in 1952, with much lower levels of the most comparable metric, the concentration of PM10 particles.

But there’s little room for congratulation. Nowadays, PM2.5 pollution (particles measuring 2.5 microns in size or smaller) is the preferred metric for measurement. Much more dangerous, at about 1/30th the width of a human hair or small enough to get into the respiratory system and the blood, these droplets damage the lungs and the heart. And Beijing’s PM2.5 data makes for grim reading, with the highest levels since authorities began publishing the information last year. Many of the readings are literally ‘off the charts’. Generally, the official pollution scores top out at an index level of 500, the worst of the thresholds in the warning indicators. But the Wall Street Journal says that the air has been a lot worse than that, with monitoring equipment at the US Embassy registering 866 micrograms per cubic metre last Saturday, or a corresponding index reading of 755. That level of pollution is almost 12 times the recommended maximum for China, and 25 times above acceptable levels in the United States.

What’s creating the foul air in Beijing?

In a short-term response to the toxic cloud, city authorities instructed construction sites to limit their activity, told industrial enterprises to reduce emissions, and ordered municipal authorities to reduce their vehicle usage by 30%.

The longer term causes of the urban pall will come as no great surprise to the city’s residents, as Beijing has suffered fug-like conditions in the past, albeit not at quite the same intensity. A national study from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2006 pinpointed a number of underlying causes for air pollution, including vehicle fumes at 6% of emissions, and traffic dust generating about the same amount. But the largest single contributor by far (at 19%) was the burning of coal by industrial users and for power generation. Here, there are similarities with London’s 1952 disaster. In particular, the coal fires burning in peoples’ homes became a key target for legislation (they aren’t a major factor in Beijing where heating is mostly provided on a municipal basis, some of it through gas-fired power). But what was made less public after the London disaster was that the maps of the worst pollution showed that inner-city power plants and factory smoke stacks were a major cause too. As a result, the legislative response included smoke-free zones across residential areas, and future power plants were built more distant from urban areas.

Beijing’s bosses will argue that they have being doing something similar, refusing permission for new coal-fired projects in the city since 2008, and pushing for more of a shift to gas-fired generation. But clearly, much more can be done, particularly in closing down factory smoke stacks nearest to residential areas.

How have the locals reacted to the smog?

In the late 1950s the British government distributed 3 million masks to residents in higher risk areas, despite the medical knowledge that they were unlikely to provide much protection if the worst of the smog reoccurred. At least the industrial-strength N95-rated masks being sold in Beijing this week filter out the worst pollution, and there has been a surge in purchases from shops and websites (residents have been warned not to rely on cotton or surgical masks, which don’t do the same job.)

Orders for air purifiers have surged too, especially HEPA-standard filters that remove the worst of the particles from the surrounding air.

“Enquiries are up 500% and people sound really frightened,” one vendor told WiC on Monday, reporting that most of the requests were coming from new customers shocked by the sudden severity of the pollution.

The outlook for China’s capital?

There were signs of improvement as the week progressed, with the monitoring station at the US Embassy on Wednesday registering pollution levels down by more than a half from their weekend highs. The short-term measures taken earlier in the week may have helped, although windier weather can probably take much more of the credit.

Despite the bleak conditions, there are a few positives. At least the city’s air quality is being monitored more robustly, with warnings on the associated health risks distributed in the public domain too. Getting to this point has been a struggle. As WiC reported last year Beijing’s environmental authorities had long resisted the freer exchange of pollution data and they were particularly incensed by high-profile updates on the fetid air from the US Embassy’s Twitter feed.

Fortunately, city bosses have now relented, adopting new reporting protocols across Beijing. The days of leaving citizens wholly in the dark seem to be behind them.

Air pollution is also a more open topic in the media, with this week’s crisis featuring as the top-ranking story on all of the main online news sites. Many weibo users opted for dark humour in debating the situation, with the discussion tag “I don’t want to be a human vacuum cleaner” generating more than 1.7 million comments. But there has been freer coverage in the state media as well, suggesting that censorship of air pollution stories may have eased since Xi Jinping raised “a more beautiful environment” as a policy priority in November.

Xi has also demanded that official news outlets report more genuine news, and state broadcaster CCTV obliged on Sunday, making the capital’s toxic backdrop the lead item on its news shows. Newspapers reported with unexpected gusto too. “What’s Going on With the Air?” queried the People’s Daily in one headline, while Ling Zhijun, a senior editor at the newspaper, pushed a little harder on his personal weibo account. “I am really looking forward to hearing what the government will say about this,” Ling speculated. “I especially want to know if the Party Secretary or the Mayor are in Beijing these days. If so, how do they guarantee they can breathe safely?”

So, there’s more recognition that pollution must be addressed?

The trend is wider acknowledgement of the environmental risk to citizens, including more studies linking the worst cases of pollution to illness and death.

This started out in 2007, with a joint study from China’s State Environmental Protection Administration and the World Bank culminating in an estimate that as many as 400,000 deaths could be attributable to air pollution each year. At the time, the topic was regarded as too sensitive, so the report was never publicised, Pan Xiaochuan, a professor at Peking University’s School of Public Health, told Century Weekly magazine last week. But newer studies have been getting wider coverage, suggesting a change of approach. A report co-authored by Peking University and Greenpeace last month linked air pollution to at least 8,572 premature deaths across four major cities (including Beijing) last year, while another study published this week by the Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University reports that seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in China (Beijing is on the list). Another finding: only 1% of China’s 500 cities meet air quality standards recommended by the World Health Organisation.

So expect more measures to improve the air?

Yes, although London’s experience is again instructive. Harold Macmillan, the government minister charged with responding to the killer smog, at first resisted calls for swifter action. Rather like China today, responsibility for clean air in Britain at the time was divided across a number of government departments, making coordinated action difficult. Resources were also thin on the ground, with only one civil servant tasked with remedying the pollution. This resonates with warnings from Zhao Lijian and Xu Nan on the China Dialogue blog last week that China’s Ministry for Environmental Protection is seriously understaffed. Apparently, it only has a few hundred employees, far fewer than the 19,000 staff at the Environmental Protection Agency in the US.

Perhaps most pertinently of all, Macmillan feared the economic impact of imposing tougher regulations, warning of the “enormous number of broad economic considerations that have to be taken into account” in weighing up the policy response.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar plea emanating from Chinese officials today, as they struggle with the priority of generating economic growth, but in a manner in which the environment gets some basic protection.

More positively, Zhou and Xu at China Dialogue argue that China has some advantages in wrestling with its dilemma, including the chance to benefit from knowledge accumulated by environmental protection agencies elsewhere in the world. Mature technology including desulphurisation and de-nitrification processes for power plants is also available. But the Greenpeace study last month warned that more has done to implement these techniques, especially for nitrogen oxide emissions, which are a major contributor to PM2.5. New rules were introduced two years ago requiring power plants to retrofit with cleaner generating capacity, but only a small portion have made any progress, Greenpeace says.

Environmental advocates also want more work on identifying where the pollution is coming from, as well as more onerous standards to curtail the main polluters.

Here, the suggestion of a reluctance to act bears similarities to the UK experience in 1952. One parallel is fuel quality. Virtually bankrupt after the Second World War, Britain had been forced to sell its higher grade coal for export, meaning that it was the lower grade, smoky fuel being burned on London’s hearths. In China this week the Wall Street Journal noted that the central government has delayed the nationwide rollout of new fuel standards twice, with the suggestion that state-owned refining giants like Sinopec have been resisting the push for cleaner fuel on cost grounds (Sinopec rejects the criticism, claiming to have spent Rmb200 billion on improving fuel quality over the past decade).

Similarly, the Associated Press suggests that the authorities haven’t delivered on plans requiring cleaner engines for commercial trucks, which it blames for belching out much of the Beijing smog.

“It’s not a problem of technology. Increasing the emissions standard greatly increases the cost,” John Zeng at LMC Automotive, a research firm, told AP. “Most buyers are small business owners and they are very price-sensitive.”

Zeng added that upgrades to cleaner engines would cost about $3,200, adding about 8% to the purchase price of a typical commercial vehicle.

So it all comes down to costs?

We know that the authorities can have an impact in reducing air pollution if they choose, following their strenuous efforts to keep the skies blue during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Perhaps more focus on the economic consequences of inactivity will prompt wider action, especially if the costs of damaging the environment are seen as exceeding the bill for protecting it.

Last year the Financial Times cited an estimate from Wang Yuqing, formerly deputy head of the environment ministry, that pollution was costing China an equivalent of 5-6% of its GDP, while another study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011 thought that pollution cost the economy $112 billion in 2005, primarily in health service expenses and lost productivity. The Greenpeace data from last month also suggested Rmb6.8 billion ($1.09 billion) in economic losses in the four cities in its survey.

Of course, policy changes will also take time to deliver the full benefits. In 1962, 750 more Londoners died in another case of toxic fog, even as the clean air regulations were starting to take effect. But China’s leadership doesn’t deny that there is a difficult road ahead. “Pollution is not a problem that emerged only a few days ago – it’s a long term issue and fixing it will take a long time,” vice-premier Li Keqiang told media this week.

The problem for policymakers is that they need to act more aggressively because of the surge in energy demand anticipated in the years ahead, as well as China’s ongoing urbanisation, and new trends in consumption (more cars on the roads, for instance).

Adding to the sense of foreboding is that (stunningly) Beijing doesn’t even make it into China’s air pollution top 10. Shijiazhuang, in neighbouring Hebei province, wins the unwelcome title of having the worst air of all.


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