China’s air pollution and health crisis worsens

From ToxicLeaks

China’s emergence as a global military, economic and political power has been achieved through aggressive manufacturing and industrial production, but at a catastrophic price for citizens and the environment. Air pollution, arising from heavy industry and coal power as well as other sources, is among the most visible of Beijing’s climate challenges.

The global community is well aware of the air quality compromises in China, which have been documented for years, but government leaders have yet to bring the pollution problem under control with meaningful regulation enforcement and the implementation of sustainable practices.

In the meantime, China’s pollution-related public health crisis continues. The impact of airborne particulate matter, according to a new study from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, is directly tied to premature death. The March 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal looked at 38 Chinese cities and determined that 300,000 deaths per year might be prevented if World Health Organization guidelines for air quality were enforced.

Research by University of British Columbia scientists, presented at the 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, found that 5.5 million people died because of poor air quality in 2013, with 55 percent of them living in China or India. That data translates to 1.6 million Chinese lives lost in 2013 alone.

As part of its climate pledges under the Paris Agreement – and for that matter, the survival of the nation and its people – China has laudably taken steps to curb emissions and improve air quality. Still, the promises are not yet backed by policies that deliver results and the will to enforce them.

China’s reliance on coal-fired power to feed the voracious appetites of its steel factories, chemical plants, mines and aluminium smelters is now described as disastrous. Coal consumption per kilometer in the Beijing-Tianjin and industrial Hebei region is 30 times the world’s average, and that’s the primary factor driving the high particulate matter rates and haze. The region consumed 400 million metric tons of coal in 2015.

Other sources of emissions, including vehicle traffic and winter heating, must be reduced.

Chinese citizens, in many cases joined by Chinese officials, have become increasingly vocal about the life-or-death threat to their health and that of future generations. They want China to make good on promises to achieve environmental goals that protect their villages and cities, and demand that the government hold corporations accountable for their environmental crimes. Until they do, the public health crisis tied to air pollution in China will continue without a remedy.

Air quality data and China’s pollution crisis[edit | edit source]

For eight straight days ending in early January 2017, residents of Beijing and Tianjin and their northern Chinese neighbors endured levels of ultrafine particulate matter that blew past levels of 500 μg per cubic meter of air. It is twice the daily concentration considered hazardous by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. These dark, dense clouds of haze and sun-blocking poison are made of sulfates, nitrates and other solid or liquid particles that are less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5). The cities suffered just a week after a similar episode affected 70 northern Chinese cities, in part because pollution is affected by winter weather and geography.

China only began measuring PM2.5 in 2012; before that, attempts to reduce the out-of-control air pollution focused on sulfates, nitrogen oxides and larger particulates. A Chinese environmental ministry report found that in 2015, people in 265 of 338 Chinese metropolitan areas breathed air that failed to meet health standards.

That daily exposure is also prolonged. On average, the air quality index of Beijing was four times the healthy limit between 2008 and 2015. Yet the first public “red alert” warning for the 22 million people who live there, albeit a policy improvement, was issued only in December 2015.

Health issues for Chinese people[edit | edit source]

Researchers say the air pollution is the fourth leading risk factor for death each year, exceeded only by dietary risks, high blood pressure and smoking. The PM2.5 particles can enter human cells, causing serious respiratory issues and significant health problems. A 2016 study found a higher risk of heart diseases related to elevated PM2.5 exposure and corresponding increases in calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. Another found a 22 percent increase in the risk for high blood pressure among people living with higher PM2.5 concentrations in the most polluted areas.

A 2016 New York Times report found that – in large measure because of corporate avarice, corruption and environmental neglect – the air is causing lung cancer cases to soar. In Hebei, the steel-producing province that is home to the six most polluted Chinese cities, the death rate from lung cancer reached 35.22 per 100,000 people in 2012, a fourfold increase across 40 years. In Beijing, the rates are even worse. At 75.2 per 100,000 for men and 45.9 for women, an upward spike of 50 percent in both genders, the numbers point to environmental causes rather than smoking or other lifestyle and behavioral risks.

A February 2017 study from the Health Effects Institute (HEI) found that the Chinese account for 26.1 percent of the 4.2 million early deaths on the planet caused by air pollution in 2015. The study looked at particulate matter and ozone, across 175 countries, and found that China’s data actually shows an overall improvement with a reduction of 2 percent in particulate-related deaths, with a slight uptick in ozone-caused deaths. While researchers welcome China’s turn toward solving its environmental problems, it’s clearly not enough in the country with the highest rate of air pollution deaths in the world.

Heavy industry and coal-fired power emissions[edit | edit source]

China’s growth in steel production, aluminium, cement and chemical production has made it a world leader – and a world polluter. While the industrial impact on water and soil is sobering, the air pollution is worse. The problem isn’t just the carbon emissions from the factories, but also the coal-fired power that these industries, in fact much of China, still relies on. China is the top consumer of coal in the world, and 70 percent of its electricity is generated by coal-fired plants.

That will only increase, as China announced in 2016 that it will add an additional 19 percent in coal power generation by 2020, though overall reliance on coal capacity will drop to 55 percent.

Companies such as Hebei Iron and Steel, Hongqaio Group (aluminium) and its related Weiqiao power holdings, and countless other organizations generate tremendous amounts of coal-energy emissions. Many of the state-owned electricity providers – China Huaneng Group, Huadian Group, China Guodian Group, China Datang Group – are the biggest culprits because they operate subcritical coal-fired power station (SCPS) that emit 75 percent more carbon pollution, and use two-thirds more water, than the most technologically advanced coal plants.

Conch Cement has annual CO2 emissions of 200,000 kt, Jiangsu Sha-Steel has more than 60,000 kt, and Hongqiao Group emits more than 100 000 kt CO2 per year. Aluminium is among the biggest offenders, and 2016 data shows jaw-dropping numbers that suggest about 80 percent of Chinese aluminium is produced in violation of China’s environmental laws. All of China’s major producers violate emission standards to some degree or another, collectively accounting for over 24,361 thousand metric tons of aluminium smelting capacity and 10,065 MW of installed power generating capacity that runs in contravention of China’s emission laws.

According to the relevant statute, a smelter may emit no more than 10.0 mg/m3 of particulate matter, 200 mg/m3 of sulfur dioxide, and 3.0 mg/m3 of fluoride. Additionally, thermal power plants may emit no more than 100 mg/m3 of sulfur dioxide, 100 mg/m3 of nitrogen oxides, and 30 mg/m3 of dust. Boilers over four years old are permitted to put out 200 mg/m3 of sulfur dioxide, and boilers built before 2004 are allowed to emit 200 mg/m3 of nitrogen oxides.

When these standards are ignored, particulate matter – along with fluoride, sulfur dioxide and other toxins – can cause health hazards that are killing Chinese and harming the environment.

China plans to adjust output targets for steel and aluminium in its northern regions during the winter months in order to curb emissions and reduce the haze trapped in Beijing and neighboring cities. Those cuts are expected to trim steel capacity by half in four cities, including top producer Tangshan, and slash both alumina and aluminium production by 30 percent. Analysts say that depending on implementation, the cuts may total a 5 percent loss in national aluminum production, 9 percent in alumina and 3 percent in steel, according to Bloomberg.

On the other hand, emissions in neighboring Shandong are on the rise and may offset efforts to slash the production capacity of heavy industry in Hebei. Located to Beijing’s southeast, Shandong province is home to one of the biggest concentrations of chemical manufacturing in China.

However, the Chinese coal industry is the most important of all of China’s industries and responsible for the most environmental damage; China must find a solution for a smooth transition in the coal industry and other energy intensive sectors to ensure it achieves sustainability goals.

Pollution caused by transportation[edit | edit source]

The economic rise of China has meant increased consumption that includes more cars on the road. That has meant dramatic increases in vehicle emissions, and the 5.7 million vehicles in Beijing are a significant cause of PM2.5 particulates in the city. Those vehicles contributed 31 percent of the city’s fine particulates in 2015, according to Beijing’s Environmental Statement for 2015. There are also 100,000 polluting diesel trucks used in the city’s outskirts, and without working emission controls they can contribute tens of times the pollutants of an average car.

In response, Beijing banned vehicles registered before 2005 because of their higher emissions, and limits traffic during poor air quality windows. There is also a lottery to limit the number of vehicles driving on any given day, and to choose new car ownership. Without a coordinated regional effort, though, vehicle-related gains in one city are erased by activities elsewhere. At least one study, rejected by Chinese officials, has questioned how much pollution is really being caused by vehicle traffic when compared with industrial emissions, heating and other sources.

Dirty winter heating offsets gains in other sectors[edit | edit source]

Many Chinese, particularly in the country’s south, rely on inefficient heating stoves that burn coal or in some cases wood. The chronic winter heating problem has yet to be fully addressed by Chinese officials, who see pollution from low-grade coal shroud northern regions each year.

In 2015, He Zhicheng, an economist at Agricultural Bank of China, said that if the government would replace all old boilers with the more energy-efficient ones, and would forbid the use of inferior coal in rural areas, northern China could cut its carbon emissions by at least 30 percent. But local authorities have shied away from forcing people to use better coal because of the cost, and even subsidy programs have their limitations.

While officials obsess over the substandard coal used in heating – or even debating its outright ban – they would do well to consider how reliance on coal-fired power solutions are also a problem for winter heating. Jiang Yi, an expert in energy and architecture issues from Tsinghua University, has pointed out that extending central heating systems to the Chinese south would mean burning an extra 50 million metric tons of coal per year. This growing pollution because of obsolete heating systems is a policy failing when one considers that heavy coal consumption across the Hebei province, for example, offsets the improvements made by a Beijing ban.

Insufficient Chinese government response[edit | edit source]

Those inconsistencies in traffic or heating policies illustrate the need for a more comprehensive approach to pollution in China, where half of the coal consumed in the world is still burned.

Facing strong public pressure, China’s government began to implement its Action Plan on Prevention & Control of Air Pollution in 2013. In the plan, the government pledged to slash coal consumption from around 67 percent of the nation’s total energy use in 2012 to 65 percent by 2017. It also vowed to reduce PM2.5 levels by up to 25 percent by 2020, with a focus on sulfur and nitrogen oxides.

Yet experts say that has not been enough to curb the problem. Only dramatic drops in coal consumption and all emissions will begin to clean up the air, especially where the high PM2.5 concentrations persist.

Authors Hepeng Jia and Ling Wang note that in 2014, China implemented emergency air pollution controls during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. Even plants that met emissions standards were closed for a total cost of 3.5 billion yuan (USD$500 million), and the companies and residents were compensated for their losses.

The result was a window into a greener future: low PM 2.5 levels of 37 µg/m³ resulted in clear blue skies over Beijing. But this was shortlived: after the summit ended, the plants restarted, the corporations went back to neglecting environmental regulations, and the Chinese government moved on.

Progress is being made, to be sure. The dust concentration by the coal-burning boilers in thermal power plants has been reduced from 30 milligrams per cubic meter to 20 milligrams per cubic meter. Cloud seeding, a strategy designed to help clear the smog over cities like Beijing, has had an impact. By switching to high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal technologies, China is making some of its coal-fired power plants more efficient.

Public information about the environmental situation has improved. New laws were voted to crack down on big polluters, with bigger fines, jail time for executives of polluting companies, and allegedly more possibilities for individuals to sue when they have been victim of pollution.

Yet transparency and enforcement remain top concerns, especially where state-owned companies are involved. China’s environmental ministry sees a range of noncompliance, from egregious refusals of environmental inspections to doctored emissions data submitted to authorities. In early 2017, the ministry sent 18 teams of inspectors fanned out across 8,500 factories, mines and heating energy providers in the north, including polluted cities like Beijing and Shijiazhuang.

There are no surprises in what they found: Companies put profits before people, and economic development before clean air and public health. Local governments are either intentionally failing to develop comprehensive plans to deal with air pollution, or have ineffective and useless plans. In some cases plants actually increased their coal burning on heavy pollution days when they were supposed to reduce emissions.

Experts say that many facilities cut costs by covertly shutting down their air pollution controls, often at night, so there are no accurate estimates of how much these emissions contributed to long-term pollution. But, they say, virtually every inspection by environmental regulation agencies have detected dozens of these illegal emissions in recent years. That’s if the officials were allowed access, because it’s not that unusual for Chinese companies to refuse them.

Beijing Shougang Cold-roll Steel, Tianjin Daishinku Corp and the Langfang compound of the electronics firm Foxconn refused their environmental inspections outright. And companies that faked their data included Hebei Lima Gas, Hebei Taiheng Porcelain, Shjiangzhuang Yujing Glass, Zhongji Zhengyuan Chemical, Quzhai Cement and Jingye Steel Group.

The silver lining in the dark smog is that China is exposing violations. The State Council has told officials to treat heavy pollution as a natural disaster and has directed them to have emergency management responses during peak pollution. The State Council plans to withhold loans from entities that fail environmental assessments system and deny water and electrical services.

In that sense, China is beginning to act on its global climate commitments and respond to the demands of its citizens, many of whom are environmental activists building a sustainable China.

Chinese citizens taking action[edit | edit source]

Despite their caution under the authoritarian Chinese government, citizens frequently take to the Internet, Weibo and other social media platforms, to connect over their frustrations with air pollution. They are increasingly connecting and protesting in real life, as environmental activists fear air quality that is poisoning their lives more than authorities threatening them about disturbing order.

The Daqing protest in February 2017 is an example of urban Chinese who have had enough smog and environmental damage opposing a new aluminium plant by a subsidiary of Zhongwang Holdings. Even the person answering the police hotline said “everyone in Daqing is against the project.” The company said it was surprised by the protests, and insisted that environmental protection remains a top priority.

The environmental pollution, official and corporate corruption, and other drivers lead to thousands of Chinese protests each year. Citizens are now joined by their governments in developing action plans. More than two dozen of China’s northern cities have joined Beijing and Tianjin – scene of the deadly and disastrous 2015 explosion and sodium cyanide leak – in drawing up plans to deal with winter smog.

These cities plan to shut down small-scale polluting businesses, and those without proper licenses. Beijing, Tianjin, Langfang and Baoding will ban the small coal-fired furnaces commonly used in winter and declare themselves “coal free” cities. Tianjin’s port will stop receiving coal by road rather than rail, and all participating cities plan emissions monitoring equipment to deal with diesel and high-petrol vehicles.

Since these communities are home to the nation’s heavy industries, steel and aluminium output along with chemical plant production will be slashed during the seasonal winter emissions reduction period under the plan – moves that underscore the impact of climate and weather.

Climate change and Chinese pollution[edit | edit source]

China must also consider how geography, weather and climate change contribute to air quality issues, especially in the northern Chinese cities. Geography plays an important role in northern China’s air pollution: The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is surrounded by mountains trapping the air, a situation that becomes worse in winter.

Yuesi Wang, a leading scientist at the Beijing-based Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), said high humidity and inversion patterns are among the weather factors that make pollution worse. Winter’s slower air flow makes the problem of coal-fired heating and the particulate matter worse: It doesn’t blow away, and scientists say warming climate temperatures are contributing to the reduced winds during the winter months.

Another interesting discovery suggests that the smog feeds on itself. Scientists wondered why, with the sun blocked by northern China’s smog, there were high levels of sulfates, since the expected photochemical reaction should have been reduced by the pollution itself. Instead, they found that the chemical interaction between sulfates, nitrous oxides and moisture in the air caused the haze to amplify itself, so cutting NO2 emissions is important to reduce the sulfates.

A third finding looked at black carbon, a major component of PM2.5 particulates. A structural transformation common to black carbon took just 4 to 6 hours in Beijing, four times as fast as in Houston, Texas, which was used as a control by the Texas A&M team working on the project.

“Our studies indicate that already polluted urban environments and polluting particulates could interact to cause a multiplication of the haze effect. To tackle Beijing’s haze, researchers should not only study primary pollutants but their complicated interaction with atmosphere,” Renyi Zhang told Chemical & Engineering News. Zhang and his Chinese counterparts suggest a more holistic approach in China that includes ozone levels as well as particulates when considering air pollution challenges – and solutions that consider the role of the environment itself on clean air.

See also[edit | edit source]