A version of this essay, in Chinese, first appeared on the New York Times’ Chinese website.
Over the past week, hundreds of cities across China experienced dangerous spikes in air pollution levels. With air quality degrading to 20 or even 30 times worse than what is deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO), even our language strained to describe it (what can be worse than “hazardous”?). As visibility dropped to nearly zero and hospital admissions surged, the Chinese public began demanding both explanations and actions to prevent similar episodes in the future.
Unfortunately, extreme pollution events are common in China – especially in Beijing. This week’s pollution was notable for being the worst in recent memory, but the pollution accumulation spike was not unique – and next time it may even be worse. Even more important from a long-term health perspective, annual average air pollution levels in many cities in China remain unacceptably high. Until the government succeeds in implementing comprehensive policies requiring deep and permanent emissions reductions throughout the country, China will continue to struggle with air pollution for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the policy and technology solutions to solving China’s air pollution crisis are well-known. Even better: these solutions will save millions of lives and can be implemented without sacrificing economic growth.
Causes of air pollution
China’s rapidly increasing numbers of coal-burning power plants, inefficient industrial facilities, and motor vehicles burning dirty fuel produce an enormous volume of air pollution every day. Pollutants directly emitted by these sources react with each other in the chemical soup that is the atmosphere, producing new types of “secondary” pollution including health-damaging ground-level ozone. This pollution is then transported through the atmosphere by prevailing meteorological conditions. When winds are stagnating – as was the case last weekend throughout much of eastern China – air pollution can accumulate rapidly. Geography can further complicate the pollution story. Cities bounded on two or more sides by mountains – such as Beijing and Los Angeles – are even more susceptible to severe pollution episodes. In Beijing’s case, winds blowing gently from the south carry air pollution from across central and northern China and trap it against the mountains to the north and west of the city.
Air pollution is regional
Because pollutants travel easily in the atmosphere (and some pollution sources, like vehicles, travel themselves), air pollution is fundamentally a regional problem, requiring regional or – even better – national solutions. Scientists have estimated that between one-third to two-thirds of Beijing’s pollution is caused by emissions in the surrounding provinces. Beijing’s government has implemented dramatic and impressive measures over the past decade to reduce pollution emissions within its boundaries; for example, the city has nearly eliminated coal-burning, implemented the most stringent vehicle emissions and fuel quality standards in the country, scrapped hundreds of thousands of high-emitting cars and trucks, and forced major industrial plants to relocate. However, pollution level spikes in the city continue to occur throughout the year, and average air pollution levels are far from meeting even China’s air quality standards. Though cities undoubtedly have a critical role to play in reducing emissions in China, air pollution cannot be solved exclusively at the municipal level.
Neither monitoring and reporting nor temporary policies are enough
The Chinese government has reacted to the recent, severe pollution episode by pledging to improve pollution data accuracy and transparency, and by implementing short-term, “emergency” pollution reduction policies like restricting government car use and temporarily halting factory production. Similar (though even more draconian) temporary policies were proven to be an effective regional air quality improvement strategy during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. However, although these temporary policies may have some impact on reducing the severity of short-term pollution level spikes, they will do little to address the elevated day-to-day average pollution levels that are killing hundreds of thousands of people in China every year.
As for data transparency improvements, these are important and welcome steps, particularly the recent launching of real-time air pollution reporting for 74 cities in China and pledges to improve early, public warning systems during hazardous pollution conditions. However, monitoring and reporting are fundamentally only descriptions of the problem, not solutions themselves.
Solutions: deep and permanent cuts
The fundamental solution to China’s air pollution crisis is the rapid introduction of deep, permanent emissions reduction policies for all sources, especially power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles. For such policies to succeed, many of the necessary steps – for example, confronting entrenched state-owned enterprises and significantly expanding and empowering China’s national environmental protection authority – will not be easy. But only through long-term reductions in the total volume of air pollution produced in the country will pollution level spikes be eliminated, and average air quality begin to improve in all Chinese cities.
Consider the case of motor vehicle emission control. With China now the global leader in automobile production and sales, emissions from cars, buses, and trucks are a large and growing – and sometimes overlooked – source of air pollution. Of particular concern are long-distance diesel trucks belching black smoke as they travel regionally between factories, distribution centers, and cities. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has already issued a policy, “China IV,” that aims to reduce dangerous particulate matter emissions from new trucks by 80 percent. However, MEP has been forced to delay nationwide implementation of these standards twice already – for a total of two and a half years – because the quality of diesel fuel produced by China’s state-owned refineries significantly lags behind what is required for the new truck technologies to function properly. Furthermore, immediate improvements in China’s nationwide fuel quality will not just enable the introduction of “China IV” trucks. They will also facilitate the introduction of future “China VI” vehicles requiring tailpipe filters which eliminate nearly all particle emissions.
Even once this and other standards do go into effect, the Chinese government faces severe capacity shortages to properly enforce them. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency employs some 18,000 government officials. How many are there in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection? Just a few hundred.
Economic growth can continue
In the 1970s, the United States faced an air pollution crisis not so different from that of China today. Cities like Los Angeles regularly experienced both short-term spikes and dangerously elevated average levels of air pollution. But stringent, wide-reaching, permanent control programs implemented for a variety of sources in the United States have produced dramatic results. From 1980 to 2010, emissions of major air pollutants in the United States were cut by over half – even as GDP more than doubled. And because the societal costs of air pollution – hospital bills, reduced productivity and missed work days due to illness, premature death, agricultural loss, and more – can be exceptionally high, analyses in the US have regularly shown that pollution reduction policies deliver total societal benefits far outweighing their costs – often by a factor of five to ten or even higher.
China is no different. The enormous, current economic costs from the health burdens of air pollution in China have been estimated to total at least 1.2 percent of GDP. And this doesn’t even factor in additional “hidden” losses from, for example, damage to China’s international image. China’s past three decades of remarkable development have produced enormous gains for average citizens. But they have also produced dramatic increases in emissions of air pollutants. Fortunately, experience throughout the developed world proves that economic growth can thrive even while air pollution is reduced. This week, China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang responded to China’s severe pollution with pledges of increased government action. Only if this action includes critical steps such as deep, permanent cuts in emissions from all sources, strong enabling policies like improvements in fuel quality, and broad expansion of China’s environmental authorities, will China’s days of “crazy bad” air finally be gone forever.