How China is tackling their air pollution epidemic

AIR POLLUTION IS A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS. According to data from the World Health Organization, 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of the effects of air pollution. That equates to one in eight deaths from around the globe.

Key Stats:

  • 7 million: The annual number of premature deaths that are linked to air pollution globally
  • 30km2: The footprint of the air purifying tower proposed by the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • 54%: The year on year reduction in air pollution in Beijing for the final quarter of 2017 vs 2016

There is no single definitive cause of all air pollution, and different countries and cities are being affected to different degrees. There is also no magic bullet, one size fits all solution to the problem. It’s a global issue that needs urgently addressed.

If you ask an average person on the street to conjure up an image of inner city air pollution, they might bring to mind a street full of people wearing facemasks in Beijing. Wearing these kinds of masks in a city might seem a little odd to a European or American, but there is a very good reason why this has been commonplace in the capital of China. Beijing is high up the list of the most polluted cities in the world for particulate matter, and the negative effects of air pollution in the capital are well-documented, such as the 6 people that suffered heart attacks during the 2015 Beijing Marathon and the red alert for smog in 2016 that lead to suspending schools and vehicle restrictions. A face mask is one of the first lines of defence against the adverse effects of air pollution, but it only targets the effects and not the root causes.

You might ask yourself why people continue to move to Beijing in such large numbers when it is clearly bad for your health. It turns out that people in Beijing have been asking themselves the same question. There is now a growing trend of moving out of Beijing completely in order to escape the effects of air pollution. For those who can’t make a permanent move, fleeing Beijing in times of extreme air pollution is so commonplace that it resulted in a huge surge in flights and accommodation bookings during the 2016 smog alert.

A reduction of coal power stations is good news for the air

The Chinese government are well aware of the problems and causes of air pollution and there has been a concerted effort to bring it under control. The incredible pace of industrialisation in China greatly increased the demand for power. This led to the proliferation of coal power stations which vastly increased CO2 emissions and became a major contributor to air pollution. Between 2000 and 2005 the annual level of CO2 emissions doubled. A clampdown on coal burning and a switch to natural gas has resulted in a dramatic decrease in pollution levels across the country and particularly in the capital. When comparing the last quarter of 2017 with the same quarter in 2016, there was a drop of 54% in pollution. While there are of course still emissions problems to consider with natural gas, in comparison to coal it is a step in the right direction.

A more novel solution to the air pollution problem has been employed in Xian in the Shaanxi province of China. Here a 100m high air purification tower has been built and is generating improvements in air quality for an area of 10 square kilometres. It works by sucking air into large greenhouses around the base of the tower, heating this air so that it rises up through multiple layers of cleaning filters before being emitted from the top. This tower is actually a scaled down version of a proposed air purification tower. If built, the full-size tower will be 500m tall with a diameter of 200m, and have greenhouses covering an incredible 30km2 of ground. The upshot is that it would provide enough clean air for a small city. Perhaps in the future we’ll see towers such as these in many cities around the world, or even see them worked into city planning.

The air pollution epidemic is far from over in China. While there were significant improvements in individual cities, overall the nationwide prognosis has not been so good. The questions remain as to how China is going to meet its energy requirements as it continues to move away from coal and how it will continue to tackle the problem of air pollution in the short term. These are questions without easy answers, but steps are being taken in the right direction.

Further Reading: Related Startups and Organizations

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE): A local Chinese environmental NGO founded by Ma Jun. IPE’s mission is: “Promoting information disclosure and advancing multi-party participation, to bring back blue skies and clear waters.”

Wilson Center China Environmental Forum: US-based Wilson Center’s ‘China Environmental Forum’ has a mission “to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges.”

Bayeco – Bay Environmental Technology: provides air pollution control solutions.

Trina Solar: specializes in the manufacture of crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules and system integration.

China Singyes Solar Technologies: a Hong Kong-based investment holding company principally engaged in the provision of energy solutions.

Shunfeng Photovoltaic: a China-based company that engages in the research and development, production, and sales of solar cells.

Didi Chuxing: the world’s largest one-stop mobile transportation platform.

NIO: A Shanghai-based Chinese company that makes electric vehicles.

Alibaba:  China’s largest online commerce company is committed to sustainable corporate responsibility projects, such as selling water pollution test kits at affordable prices.

Xiaomi: The Chinese tech company’s slogan is, “Making quality technology accessible to everyone.” Their Mi Air Purifier sends pollution readings to mobile phones to alert the users of harmful levels of contamination.

Baidu: China’s largest Internet search service provider has produced smart chopsticks, ‘kuai sou’, that detect contaminated food.