Terrible air quality in China is causing health crisis

From ToxicLeaks

The air pollution in China is reaching critical levels. This is causing a major health crisis as cancer cases are soaring, especially in the most industrial provinces like Hebei. Indeed heavy industry and coal power corporations are mainly responsible for this crisis. And their environmental crimes have worn the patience of Chinese citizens dangerously thin. This is prompting the Chinese government to finally tackle environmental issues and come down on dirty industries. But the steps taken are still far from solving the issue.

The air quality is becoming is becoming disastrous[edit | edit source]

In December of 2015, the city of Beijing, China, experienced a 72 hour pollution red alert. The Air Quality Index (AQI), that measures the amount of small particles in the air, peaked around 600 and stayed above 200 for several days. This was a near repeat of the smog crisis of winter 2013, when the AQI hit 886, a figure literally off EPA charts ! On average, the AQI of Beijing has been around 100 between 2008 and 2015, which is quite scary when you think that the safe limit defined by the World Health Organization is 25 ! Other provinces in China also suffer from increasingly poor air quality. Especially the most heavily industrialized provinces like Hebei, that is close to Beijing, in the North of China. This big steel producing provinces is home to the 6 most polluted cities in the country. Hebei is probably one of the world's clearest examples of the danger of unchecked heavy industry. And this is causing terrible health issues that are only beginning to hit the Chinese population.

And it's causing massive health issues for Chinese people[edit | edit source]

As the New York times reports, heavy industrial greed is making the air so poisonous that lung cancer cases have seen a wild increase over the last decades. In Hebei, the death rate from lung cancer has been multiplied by four in the last forty years and reached 35.22 per 100,000 people in 2012. In Beijing, the rates are even worse, they got to 75.2 per 100,000 for men and 45.9 for women. And the rate has increased 50 % for both genders, which points to environmental causes and not behavioral causes like smoking. In 2014, a study published by researchers from Harvard University revealed that Beijing residents suffered from reduced lung function because of exposure to pollution particles. Richard Muller, director of Berkeley Earth, has overseen the study conducted on the Chinese air pollution in his nonprofit research organization, and he estimated that during the December air alert, breathing the Beijing air was the equivalent of smoking 1 cigarette every 40 minutes. According to another study, released by scholars from British Columbia University, 5.5 million people died because of poor air quality in the world in 2013. And 55% of these 5.5 million people were either Chinese or Indian, which is a big proportion considering that India and China only represent 35 % of the world population. The researchers estimated that in 2013, 1.6 million people died because of air pollution in China. The culprits of these incredible mortality rates are well known : the heavy industry and the coal-fired energy plants.

Heavy industry, transportation and coal energy are responsible for this increase[edit | edit source]

This heavy pollution is directly caused by the Chinese economy that has failed to develop in a sustainable way. The pollution is in part caused by the heavy industry, namely steel. Hebei is the first province for the production of steel, and China is the biggest steel producer in the world. This sector has known a dramatic growth in the last years. In 2008, the capacity of Chinese mills was around 650 million tons of steel, in 2014 it reached 1.2 billion tons. But that comes with a cost. The Chinese steel industry causes tremendous pollution throughout the country. And the most horrible thing is that these steel companies are state-owned. Hebei Iron and Steel or Baosteel Group, respectively the 3rd and 4th biggest steel companies worldwide, are public companies that are therefore supposed to be working for the common good. Clearly they are doing just the opposite. Another sector that has a terrible impact on the environment is coal energy. Coal still generates nearly 70% of Chinese electricity and of course coal is the dirtiest fuel that can be used to produce electricity. But to make matters worse, Chinese coal plants are mostly very ineffective, polluting plants. Most of China's coal plants are sub-critical coal-fired power stations (SCPS) which means that they are much less efficient than more modern plants and therefore more polluting. An Oxford study points out the efficiency and pollution gap between different types of coal plants : “The average subcritical coal-fired power station (SCPS) emits 75 per cent more carbon pollution than an average advanced ultra-supercritical – the most up-to-date form of coal-fired power station – and uses 67 per cent more water”. The world companies that produce the most electricity from these SCPS are all in China : China Huaneng Group, Huadian Group, China Guodian Group, China Datang Group. Again these are state-owned companies and it's appalling to realize how they poison the air of the citizens they supposedly belong to !

Obsolete household heating systems are a major polluter during winter time[edit | edit source]

The heating system is a source of major pollution across the country, because the heating system is completely outdated. The first thing is that central heating only exists in some places in China, which prompts the residents that don’t have it to use inefficient heating stoves that releases tremendous amounts of small particles. Basically, the heating lines divides China in two areas, in the Northern one, there are central heating systems in the cities, whereas in the South there is none. This brings many Chinese people from the South and from rural areas to use dirty coal stoves and low-grade coal that is extremely polluting for the atmosphere. A survey by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 22% of the coal burned in Beijing was below national standards and caused additional pollution. The rate of substandard coal was 27 % in Tianjin and even 38% in the province of Hebei. However, even the places with central heating systems are plagued by substantial pollution because these systems are all but efficient. They rely heavily on coal as a fuel and they lead to a lot of energy waste as the power of the heating is not decided by the residents. Jiang Yi, an expert in energy and architecture issues from Tsinghua University, pointed out that extending central heating systems to the South of China would mean burning an extra 50 million metric tons of coal per year. This growing pollution because of obsolete heating systems is a case in point of the failings of the Chinese government. Indeed, while some measures have been decided, they fall short of solving the pollution crisis that is smothering the Chinese population.

The Chinese government is finally recognizing the problem but is taking insufficient action[edit | edit source]

The Chinese government seems to have recognized the issue and is beginning to take the necessary steps even if it needs to act more decisively. First of all, the information about the environmental situation has improved. “There was a decision made to disclose more information about air quality, and raise public awareness,” according to Alex Wang, a professor at UCLA. "This is a contrast to five or 10 years ago, when people would look up at the sky and think it was just fog, rather than harmful pollution." This was clear in the Beijing air crisis of December 2015. Instead of hiding the alarming levels of small particles, the government decided to announce the first ever 72 hour pollution red alert. The Pekingese were advised to stay indoors, factories were shut down and half of the city's 5 million cars were not allowed on the streets. This crisis management helped the air quality edge back down from life-threatening to only slightly terrible. That's already something. But deeper and more lasting action has to be taken to prevent such events from happening again. For instance, the monitoring of coal quality has clearly been lax. He Zhicheng, an economist at Agricultural Bank of China, indicates that "if the government can replace all old boilers with the more energy-efficient ones, and can forbid the use of inferior coal in rural areas, northern China can cut its carbon emissions by at least 30 percent". But local authorities have shied away from forcing people from using better coal because the substandard coal is much cheaper. The Beijingese authorities have started to address the issue by subsidizing households that buy good-quality coal but it will be much more expensive for the other provinces that have a higher proportion of rural population. This seems to be moving forward. In 2014, Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), made it a national goal to eradicate pollution. 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. These provisions are a positive sign, if they are applied ! Let us not forget that all these dirty companies are state-owned, and China doesn’t take criticism of the state very well... However, the CCP faces some unrest and tackling the environmental crisis earnestly may actually be its best bet to keep control. It may be forced to work for the common good, despite its best intentions...