Column : Will the Beijing sky be blue again

Written by Amitendu Palit | Updated: Jan 19 2013, 06:53am hrs
The New Year has begun on a gloomy note in China. Pollution has reached alarming levels in several Chinese cities, particularly Beijing. With the biggest Chinese festivalthe Chinese New Yearless than a month way, the gloom and smog in a bitterly cold China is hardly putting cheer in peoples minds.

Pollution is not new to China. One of the biggest prices it has paid for its rapid industrialisation is to become the worlds largest emitter of carbon. Broad-based fuel-intensive rampant horizontal industrialisation has led to sharp increase in air and water pollution. Tackling pollution and reducing carbon emissions have been major policy priorities for China for quite some time now. The importance of these objectives have been repeatedly emphasised in various high-level forums and policy documents. But the results are yet to show.

Air pollution in Beijing has become so high that daily lives and chores have been badly affected. Apart from heavy smog disrupting road and air traffic by low visibility, people have been warned to spend as little time outdoor as possible. Outdoor activities have also been sharply limited for schools. Locals have been urged to travel more by public transport for reducing use of private cars. NGOs like the Green Beagle, Greenpeace and the Future Green Youth Leadership Council are busy distributing face masks to those who cannot avoid being outdoors for long periodsstreet workers, traffic wardens, security guards, etc.

How serious is the problem An air quality index (AQI) above 300 signals severe pollution. Several cities in China are sporting AQIs around 500 or more. These include Baoding, Beijing, Tianjin, Handan, Tanshan, Nantong, Wuxi and Zhengzhou. Cities with 300 plus AQI include Chengdu, Dalian, Harbin, Hefei, Jinan, Qingdao and Xian.

Beijing has practically degenerated into a polluting pot with the AQI rising to more than 700 at certain points in time over the last week. Famous city landmarks such as the Temple of Heaven and busy thoroughfares like the Qianmen Dongdajie are setting new highs in the AQI. While sales of face masks have soared across the city, hospitals are experiencing unusually high traffic of patients suffering from several illnesses. The usual grey Beijing sky during winter has become almost perpetually dark, raising doubts over whether the city will at all see the blue sky in the foreseeable future. The situation also casts serious doubts over the success of the Defending the Blue Sky project launched in 1998.

Pollution has been aggravated by a rapid deposition of PM2.5 particulate matter in the air. The PM2.5 levels in several Chinese cities have gone up to alarming levels, much above what is considered safe by the WHO standards. The haze over several Chinese cities is a result of high PM2.5 density in the air. PM2.5 has serious implications for respiratory disorders including heart attacks and lung cancer since it can enter human lungs and bloodstream fairly easily and quickly. High PM2.5 is already producing fatal outcomes as revealed by research conducted by the Peking Universitys School of Public Health and Greenpeace. A study done by these agencies estimates more than 8,000 premature deaths to have occurred in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and Xian in 2012 due to pollution inflicted by dense PM2.5 concentration.

One of the first steps taken by the Chinese authorities for addressing the current crisis is to collect AQI data on PM2.5. The monitoring, till now, had focused on spread of PM10, not PM2.5. Almost 500 monitoring centres have been set up in 74 cities for collecting the data. But while monitoring PM2.5 is a welcome step, the problem wont be addressed till the sources of PM2.5 accumulation are curbed.

There are several reasons behind the high concentration of PM2.5 and rise in pollution. The air quality is particularly bad in Beijing and its surrounding areas that are home to extractive industries like metal smelting, cement, oil refining and petroleum. These industries burn enormous amount of coal contributing to pollution. Indeed, around a quarter of the PM2.5 in Beijing is estimated to be the contribution of these industries.

More than 80% of electricity in China is still coal-fired. Such dependence on coal as an industrial fuel is only expected to aggravate pollution. What makes matters worse is burning of coal by several households for direct heating during the severe winter. There is little doubt that the PM2.5 and AQI counts go up in winter given that the use of coal in providing energy is pervasive, particularly in the areas north of the Yellow River.

Finally, the astronomical growth of vehicles in Beijing and their cumulative emissions are another major source of pollution. With more than 5 million registered cars, Beijing has veritably become the city on wheels. Large number of cars and long distances ensure that traffic is slow moving, fuel consuming and pollution abetting.

Evidently, global tags like the worlds factory, or the largest producer and consumer of motor vehicles, come with a price. For China, it is the air breathed.

The author is head, partnership & programme, and visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. Views are personal. He can be reached at [email protected]