Originally published in The Environmental Magazine
Recently, a friend and I were catching up. Since the last time we spoke, she had graduated college and taken a job working in Beijing. However, after holding this job for only a few months, she quit. In addition to trouble at work, she cited the city’s horrendous air quality as a primary reason for her departure.
Apparently, she developed a headache and cough on the night of her arrival. These symptoms continued to plague her until she left the city, and were most likely attributable to pollution.
After having this conversation, I decided to figure out the exact severity of the air quality issue in Beijing, and the rest of China. I also wanted to find out more about its primary causes, and what measures the Chinese government and citizens could take to improve the situation. Here’s what I learned:
China’s air quality is, to put it bluntly, very bad. In 2007, studies suggested that out of the 560 million Chinese city dwellers, only one percent breathed air deemed to be safe by the European Union. In fact, research suggests that air pollution led to the premature deaths of 1.58 million Chinese citizens in 2016. It has no doubt compromised the health of millions more. While tragic, this isn’t surprising. A vast number of large studies have linked air pollution to low birth weight, miscarriages, lung disease, cognitive impairment, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and a host of other serious health conditions.
Why is China’s air so polluted? Mainly because of emissions from coal plants.
The rate at which the country burns coal is monumental. Even as recently as 2016, coal generated 62% of China’s electricity. All in all, China is responsible for an entire forth of humanity’s total annual coal consumption. In addition to releasing carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, coal plants emit a vast number of other chemicals that are damaging to both human health and the environment. The list of said chemicals includes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, cadmium, mercury, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, and PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter).
The Chinese government has a long history of prioritizing growth above the health of its populace. However, it has also quickly come to realize the severity of these air pollution issues, and has taken significant action to address them. Due to state funded efforts, China currently leads the world in terms of total installed solar photovoltaic capacity, and is continuing to invest heavily in renewables. There has also been a massive effort by the Chinese government to replace coal with natural gas. This is because the emissions released by burning natural gas are far less damaging to human health than emissions released by burning coal.
The effects of these actions have already become apparent; CNN reported last March that “average concentrations of pollutants in Chinese cities fell by 12% from 2017 to 2018.” Also noteworthy is the fact that Beijing has fallen out of the the list of the world’s top 100 most polluted cities, following concerted efforts to get air pollution under control.
Of course, China still has a tremendous amount of air quality improvement work to do. The aforementioned list is still littered with Chinese cities, and it will be a long time before China is generating the majority of its electricity from renewable sources.
There are several ways in which you can help speed this transition, even if you don’t live in China. One of the best is by installing solar panels on your house. Investing in solar infrastructure provides a clear signal to engineers and corporations that solar is worth researching, developing, and manufacturing. Research and development (R&D) will help improve the efficiency of solar panels, and increased manufacturing volumes will lead to cheaper, more efficient production and recycling techniques. Improvements in both areas will make solar an ever more appealing option to the Chinese government and others looking to replace dirty energy generation with cleaner options. Additionally, you can share articles that draw attention to the numerous risks that air pollution poses to public health, and or the benefits of switching to renewables.