Imagine waking up and looking out your window into a dense, grey cloud of toxic gas that obscures nearby buildings.
Breathing it in gives you a headache and burns your eyes, and more than a few minutes of exposure leaves you coughing and choking. You might hope to stay indoors until it subsides, but unfortunately these conditions have persisted for over a month and you need to go to work to provide for your family. Besides, despite your expensive air purifier, the poisonous air still finds its way into your home.
This is reality for the people living in many Chinese cities like Beijing, the second most heavily populated city on the planet.
In December 2016, Beijing issued its first smog “red alerts,” signaling the highest tier of the Chinese government’s four-color smog warning system. The city’s Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of the amount of fine particles in the air, was 291 according to the U.S. Embassy.
To put that in perspective, the World Health Organization recommends a safe AQI limit of 25.
What This Means for Residents
According to a 2015 University of California, Berkeley study, at least one-third of Chinese citizens breathe air categorized as “unhealthy” on the AQI — air that kills about 4,000 people per day and upwards of 1.6 million people per year.
You’ve probably seen images of people wearing medical masks outdoors for protection, but the porous material is hardly an effective filter for carcinogenic PM2.5 particles that make up smog. These particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers, pierce deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Though they are microscopic, they still cause a lot of problems for those breathing them in, especially children and the elderly. Think reduced lung function, asthma, heart attacks, stroke and cancer.
During a red alert warning, Beijing’s 22 million inhabitants are told to avoid going outdoors if they can, lest they be exposed to hazardous levels of PM2.5. Industry and the number of cars allowed on the road are restricted, the latter by an even and odd license plate system that only allows certain vehicles on the road depending on the day of the week.
Where Did Beijing’s Smog Come From?
In recent years, China has been responsible for roughly half of the world’s consumption of coal. The rapid increase of its economy in the twenty-first century and the abundance of coal brought with it industrialization and coal-burning factories.
Gasoline vapors from the millions of vehicles on the roads and millions of coal-fired burners heating Chinese residences produce nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). When you mix NOx, VOC and sunlight, you get a chemical reaction that causes ground level ozone, also known simply as “bad” ozone.
Bad ozone and other greenhouse gas emissions in Beijing are largely trapped by the mountains which surround the city. Factor in air pollution that floats in from surrounding provinces, and you have a serious smog problem.
Not only that, but China’s pollution impacts the rest of the world by contributing in a major way to climate change. Warm air from Asia brings storms to the Pacific coast of North America. Additionally, the mix of dark, heat-trapping particles and lighter, light-reflecting particles may actually be hiding the full effects of global warming.
What’s Being Done?
Luckily, the Chinese government is tackling the problem head-on in an effort to protect its people and strengthen its economy.
A horrible smog crisis in 2013 led government officials to develop a multi-year plan to start cracking down on reducing emissions and fighting back against pollution, and rightfully so — the AQI was reportedly over 900 at one point.
China has said that it would peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and laws have been put into place to reduce emissions and fine polluters. Some cities, like Baoding, which has the worst air quality in the country, are investing heavily in renewable energy technologies.
In Beijing, some polluting factories are being relocated outside of the city, and residential coal heat is being replaced with cleaner natural gas heat.
Chinese citizens are also being better educated and informed about the quality of their air to raise public awareness. The red alert system is part of this initiative.
One loftier goal is the development of an innovative network of five 500 meter-wide ventilation zones in the city, consisting of green parks, bodies of water, highways and low-building blocks. These and other smaller corridors will improve air flow in the city.
Above all, China looks toward economic change. The country wants to move away from manufacturing and toward the service industry, focusing on tourism and technology, which produce far less pollution.
China has a long way to go, and its people are still fighting to survive every day. However, hopefully the initiatives to reduce emissions and to develop new technologies will bring the country to the forefront in the fight to protect the environment — and humanity — from the dangerous effects of climate change.
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