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The heat is rising in China

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People dance to exercise in a park during a haze day in Beijing, China, 4 January 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

In Brief

Was Beijing’s recent pollution event a meteorological or natural disaster? The concentration of fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) — the main culprit of these bad air pollution events — was recorded as high as 900 micrograms per cubic metre.


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Although Beijing met its own PM2.5 target of 76.6 micrograms per cubic metre in 2016, Beijing’s annual average PM2.5 concentrations were 73 micrograms per square metre, seven times higher than the World Health Organization annual average guideline. The PM2.5 target for 2017, according to Beijing’s mayor Cai Qi, is 60 micrograms per cubic metre.

Beijing officials have recently listed smog as a weather calamity and intend to classify smog as a meteorological disaster. The justification: it will allow the city to ‘access disaster relief resources and better coordinate emergency responses’. Tianjin and Hebei province already list smog as a natural disaster. While there is certainly a meteorological component associated with the formation of air pollution, there is concern that classifying smog as a natural disaster will shift the mitigation effort away from the source.

Emissions from heavy coal-based industries, power plants and vehicles need to be reduced for better air quality. Some are concerned about potential restrictions on discussing air pollution in public. People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, suggested that there will be ‘serious consequences caused by mistakes in broadcasting about meteorological disasters’. This is more worrisome still, considering that a recent study illustrated that air pollution is linked to a third of deaths in China — on par with smoking.

It is, however, incorrect to assume that China has not sought to tackle the problem of air pollution seriously. Since China issued a war on pollution in 2014, the government has made pollution mitigation one of its major goals. Some policies have been praised for their strong planning. These include shutting down coal mines and increasing renewable energy use. In December 2015, China decided to halt the approval of new coal mines and close 4300 small and inefficient ones within three years from 2016.

The government also planned to install over 250 GW of wind power and more than 150 GW of solar power between 2016 and 2020, although those numbers have since been reduced to 210 GW and 110 GW respectively. Beijing also pledged to spend US$2.7 billion to improve air quality in the capital in 2017. Their plan includes closing or upgrading more than 2000 polluting factories, replacing coal with renewable energy in the outskirts of Beijing and phasing out 300,000 high-polluting vehicles.

Despite these initiatives, renewable energy is facing a major curtailment problem. China has the highest wind, solar and hydropower capacities in the world. Yet even with 92,000 wind turbines and 145 GW of capacity already installed — almost double that of the United States — only 3.3 per cent of electricity in China stems from wind power. The United States, in contrast, has reached 4.7 per cent. Capacity without an outlet means renewable energy plants stay idle. In March 2016, the Chinese government mandated grid companies to purchase renewable energy to address this curtailment problem. More effort is still needed for power sector reform to incentivise renewable energy use.

Our recent study shows that there is much uncertainty surrounding China’s emissions estimates. The discrepancy in provincial and national energy statistics has led to significantly different emissions estimates for CO2 and other air pollutants. We need a better understanding of the sources and magnitude of air pollutants emitted in China. We need more transparent and disaggregated data on energy.

The difference among various emissions estimates also affects another major air pollutant — tropospheric ozone. Similar to some secondary PM2.5 pollutants, ozone is produced via a chemical reaction in the atmosphere. As ozone becomes more important to improving air quality in China, it is clear that we need a better knowledge of emission sources and magnitudes from different sectors.

Despite being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and major air pollutants, China has shown a capacity for great leadership in fighting air pollution. Given the United States’ position on climate change and environmental protection under the new Trump administration, China needs to step up to its leadership role, now more than ever.

Rather than providing Chinese citizens with ‘alternative facts’ about the cause of its air pollution (a term recently coined by the Trump administration), Chinese officials need to rely on good science and sound policy to reduce air pollution. Reducing reliance on coal, increasing renewable energy use and better understanding the sources and magnitude of emissions will help China achieve cleaner air, reduce premature mortality and confront climate change.

Eri Saikawa is Assistant Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University. You can follow her research on Twitter at @esaikawa.

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