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Air Pollution in Beijing China

Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 20 million people. The city has a remarkable number of heavy industrial complexes powered by coal energy. This makes the city a major economic hub in China, as it contributes a considerable proportion to the country’s GDP. Given its level of industrialization and population density, it is arguable that Beijing is a major employment center in China, which gives many people a source of living. Due to the use of coal as the primary source of energy, Beijing suffers some of the worst kind of air pollution in the world. Li Qiong of CCTV reports that the city ranks third out of 113 cities in the world in terms of air pollution levels (1). The city’s phenomenal blanket of smog persists even as the government claims to have stepped up its efforts to control the pollution. This clearly shows that the government and the city authorities are not doing enough to reduce air pollution in Beijing.

The causes of pollution are mainly industrial and become persistent with increased urbanization. Phys.org reports that the condition of the air in Beijing deteriorated as the city became an industrial complex rapidly, which increased the output of pollutants in the city (2). Wang et al. report that the biggest cause of air pollution is the particulate matter (PM), which they categorize into PM10 and PM2.5 (1). The particulate matter emanates from different natural and human processes and has different effects to the safeness of the air. The PRC government uses various measures to reduce air pollution in the city. Most of the strategies laid down by the government aim at cutting down the emission of pollutants with particular interest in reducing the use of coal. For instance, Wang T. et al. indicate that in 2008, the PRC government engaged in a series of controls aimed at achieving cleaner air that enabled it to host the 2008 Olympic marathon. Among the government’s strategies for controlling air pollution in 2008, was banning heavily polluting vehicles from accessing the municipality and closing down a number of heavily polluting factories (Wang et al. 7603).

Air Pollution In Beijing China

PM10 particles are the particles suspended in the air with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 10µm while the PM2.5 particles have an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5µm (Wang et al. 1). The PM10 particles may occur naturally, for example, dust particles, mold, pollen, dirt, and spores or may be resulting from human activities, like smoke. PM2.5 mainly emanates from toxic organic matter, smoke from combustion of factory material, and heavy metal escaping from smelting furnaces (Wang et al. 1). The government faces various hurdles in achieving its goals as far as reduced air pollution is concerned. One of the challenges is the non-compliance of producers who may fail to comply with the set production limits. A report by China Daily indicates that there are producers who often exceed the legal limits of pollution resulting in higher than projected pollution levels (1). The problems of compliance may also couple with lack of transparency in the setting of standards by authorities. With low transparency, the standards set are subject to compromise resulting in inefficiencies of the process.

The only way that the PRC government can overcome air pollution in Beijing is by acknowledging that most of its efforts so far have failed to achieve worthwhile results. The government requires to also accept that trying to resolve pollution issues only in the winter season when the skies demonstrates to the whole world how much they are polluted is vain. All the stakeholders should participate in drafting measures to tackle air pollution throughout the year. Participation of factory owners and their management is essential in order to draw a collective policy to handle the air pollution problems.

Alles gives a comprehensive evaluation of the extreme air pollution events for the period 2010-2013. In the report, it is clear to find out that Beijing has polluted her air in an unprecedented manner. The full ambit of air pollution in Beijing manifests in the winter season in every year. BURGESS reports that a thick blanket of smog, which reduces visibility to 100 meters, characterizes the Beijing winters (1). The measure of air pollution levels in Beijing indicates that the toxicity of the air in Beijing exceeds all the limits set by the World Health Organization and other international bodies (Greenpeace 1).

According to Alles, the Beijing air pollution levels are consistently high during the winter. In January 2010, the recorded pollution levels in Beijing and in many Chinese cities exceeded an Air Pollution Index (API) of 100 with extreme conditions extending for long hours per day (Alles 3). The pollution levels exhibited by the concentration of the PM10 and PM2.5 imply that the Beijing air remained polluted heavily for long hours in a day. Alles indicates that in “18 January 2010 = 143 avg. API PM10; PM 2.5 = 319 to 435 conc.; for 7hrs at 500 AQI.” (Alles 4) Such pollution levels prevailed in most parts of China with Shanghai recording the lowest PM10 concentration at 44 while Chifeng recorded the highest at 343 (Alles 4).

The most toxic cause of pollution in the air is the PM2.5 particles that are capable of causing adverse respiratory problems when inhaled. The toxicity of the PM2.5 emanates from their small size, which facilitates their adherence to the lung posing health risks to organisms (Center for Chinese Studies, BURGESS 1). An argument that smog only becomes problematic during the winter season may refute the premise that air pollution in Beijing has grown persistent and is slipping out of control. Reports on extreme air pollution are all covering the situation during the winter season when the prevailing weather conditions and the high use of coal exaggerate the real picture. “The PM2.5 mass concentration peak during February was most likely due to emissions from coal consumption for heating purposes…this was the month with the lowest temperatures and slowest winds in 2011” (Wang 5).

Greenpeace indicates that the PM2.5 particles carry traces of “toxic heavy metals, acid oxides, organic pollutants and other chemicals, as well as microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses” (2). This makes the PM2.5 a more hazardous form of air pollution. Greenpeace reports that modern toxicology research findings consistently prove that the “heavy metals and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) carried by PM2.5 can enter and deposit in human alveoli, causing inflammation and lung diseases” (1).

Other than affecting the lungs, PM2.5 also affects the functioning of the human circulatory and cardiovascular systems. This implies that “exposure to PM2.5 can lead to significantly increased mortality due to cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as greater cancer risks” (Greenpeace 1).

Although not as toxic as the PM2.5, PM10 particles affect the people and the environment in equally disastrous ways. The most evident effect of PM10 particles is their influence on visibility. BURGESS reports that the impact on visibility due to the presence of smog in Beijing was so severe in April 2012 resulting in the cancellation of over 150 flights to and from Beijing (1).

Wang T. et al. observe that the levels of air pollution in Beijing were still high in 2008. They also indicate that the air condition had potential to affect the economic activities in the city considering that an outlook into the Beijing 2008 Olympic marathon revealed that concerns about the weather are bound to increase from both the local citizens and from the international consumers (Wang et al., 7603). Wang et al. indicate that some pollutants reduced in concentrations after the government adopted control measures to reduce air pollution in anticipation of the Olympic. “Vehicle-related nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at an urban site dropped by 25% and 20–45% in the first two weeks after full control was put in place” (7603).

There are pollutants that have remained consistently high despite the efforts by the government to curb air pollution. For instance, Wang T. et al. report that the concentration “levels of ozone, sulfate, and nitrate in PM2.5 particles increased by 16%, 64%, 37%, respectively, compared to the period prior to the full control” (7603). This indicates that the pollutants increased in the same period that the government was spearheading pollution control programs in preparation to host the 2008 Olympics.

Wu et al. also give more evidence on the pollution rates in Beijing adding to the evidence that Beijing has a long-standing history of heavily polluted air. Wu et al. segment the incidences of air pollution based on the sources of the pollutants. They observed that local sources contribute to the pollution in the surface layer (30m in height), which accounts for “65 % of SO2, 75 % of PM10 and nearly 90% of NO2” (5997). On the other hand, pollutants observed in the higher layer (above 1.1km) emanate from the neighboring regions like southern Beijing and makes up “more than half of the SO2 and PM10 concentrations” (Wu et al. 5997).

The PRC government uses various measures to reduce air pollution in the city. Most of the strategies laid down by the government aim at cutting down the emission of pollutants with particular interest in reducing the use of coal. For instance, Wang T. et al. indicate that in 2008, the PRC government engaged in a series of controls aimed at achieving cleaner air that enabled it to host the 2008 Olympic marathon. Among the government’s strategies for controlling air pollution in 2008, was banning heavily polluting vehicles from accessing the municipality and closing down a number of heavily polluting factories (Wang et al. 7603).

The long-term directive for controlling air pollution may lie in the replacement of coal as the primary source of energy for Beijing’s industries. This is a position that the government understands fully and intends to execute within the shortest time possible. CCTV reports that the government seeks to initiate a program that sees a replacement of coal heating in the domestic sector and adopt technologies that reduce pollutant emission from combustion of coal (1). This is a sustainable step towards implementation of a long-term strategy. Natural gas, apart from it being cleaner in comparison with coal, has a higher energy content implying that its use will achieve results in both environmental and economic terms (CCTV 1).

The government faces various hurdles in achieving its goals as far as reduced air pollution is concerned. One of the challenges is the non-compliance of producers who may fail to comply with the set production limits. A report by China Daily indicates that there are producers who often exceed the legal limits of pollution resulting in higher than projected pollution levels (1). The problems of compliance may also couple with lack of transparency in the setting of standards by authorities. With low transparency, the standards set are subject to compromise resulting in inefficiencies of the process.

The only way that the PRC government can overcome air pollution in Beijing is by acknowledging that most of its efforts so far have failed to achieve worthwhile results. The government requires to also accept that trying to resolve pollution issues only in the winter season when the skies demonstrates to the whole world how much they are polluted is vain. All the stakeholders should participate in drafting measures to tackle air pollution throughout the year. Participation of factory owners and their management is essential in order to draw a collective policy to handle the air pollution problems.

An argument that smog only becomes problematic during the winter season may refute the premise that air pollution in Beijing has grown persistent and is slipping out of control. Reports on extreme air pollution are all covering the situation during the winter season when the prevailing weather conditions and the high use of coal exaggerate the real picture. “The PM2.5 mass concentration peak during February was most likely due to emissions from coal consumption for heating purposes…this was the month with the lowest temperatures and slowest winds in 2011” (Wang 5).

While it is plausible to argue that air pollution becomes noticeable during the winter season alone, it would be illogical to argue that air pollution only occurs in the cold months. The truth is that although coal use increases during the winter season, since the majority of the people use it for heating their houses, coal is the primary source of energy in China, and factories and small-scale domestic users use it throughout the year. Greenpeace reports that industrial use of coal is still high and accounts for over fifty percent of total coal use in China (13). Even in the generation of other forms of power China’s power generating companies use coal, albeit employing cleaner methods of use than the industrial boilers (Greenpeace 13).

Considering that levels of air pollution in Beijing exceed the pollution threshold set by the World Health Organization by as big a margin as recorded by BURGESS, it is plausible to argue that even in other seasons, Beijing’s air is still heavily polluted. BURGESS reports that official readings for PM2.5 in Beijing early 2013, “suggested pollution levels of over 400 micrograms (mg) per cubic meter, while an unofficial reading from the US embassy monitors recorded levels of over 800mg” (1). The records do not have any close alignment with the WHO guidelines that stipulate that countries should maintain the average concentration of PM2.5 particles in the air at a maximum of 25mg per cubic meter while affirming that above 100mg/m3, air is unhealthy (BURGESS 1). This implies that air pollution is high in Beijing not only during the cold seasons, but also throughout the year. Arguably, it is the favorable weather conditions that help conceal the ambit of air pollution during other seasons of the year.

Air pollution in Beijing may persist over a long time, as there are no solid indicators that China will resolve it any time soon. Many factors work together to ensure that pollutants will characterize Beijing’s skies for at least as long as it will take to completely replace coal energy use in the city. Although the government is working towards reducing pollution levels, there are grounds to believe that it can achieve more results if it involves the producers in the process of achieving environmental sustainability. With the winter season setting in, it is only a matter of days and the world will know whether the phenomenal smog blanket will engulf Beijing again.

The BURGESS report indicates that there is a possibility that air pollution has not increased in the recent past, but rather remained static (2). The report theorizes that the recent move by the PRC’s government to allow the public access to more national data may contribute to the impression that pollution is high. The argument is that the levels of air pollution in China have always been high but concealed. The BURGESS report proposes that it is the sudden public awareness on the pollution issues that make the situation to appear to have veered out of control (2). BURGESS even enthuses that air pollution in Beijing might have abated in the recent years (2).

Work Cited
  • Alles, David, L. (Eds). “Extreme Air Pollution Events in Beijing China 2010 & 2013.” Western Washington University, 24 Apr. 2013. 21 Nov. 2013  <http://fire.biol.wwu.edu/trent/alles/ExtremeAirPollutionEventsBeijing.pdf>.
  • Burgess, Meryl. “Beijing Smog: An annual Affair.” CCS Commentary, 18 February 2013. 21 Nov. 2013 <http://www.ccs.org.za/wp-            content/uploads/2013/02/CCS_Commentary_Beijing_Smog_an_Annual_Affair_MB.pd
  • CCTV.com. “Beijing Starts Shift from Coal to Gas.” CCTV.com, 11-08-2013. 21 Nov. 2013  <http://english.cntv.cn/program/china24/20131108/101036.shtml>.
  • CCTV.com. “Polluters Still Flouting Law: Inspection.” CCTV.com, 2013-11-19. 21 Nov. 2013  <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/m/hebei/2013-11/19/content_17115404.htm>.
  • Greenpeace. Dangerous Breathing. PM2.5: Measuring the Human Health and Economic Impacts  on China’s largest cities. Dongcheng, Beijing: Greenpeace, 2013. Print.
  • Phys.org. “Smog-blanketed Beijing urges residents to stay indoors.” 30 Jan 2013. 2013  <http://phys.org/pdf278741284.pdf> .
  • Qioing, Li. Air pollution: top concern in Beijing. 01-29-2013. 21 Nov. 2013  <http://english.cntv.cn/program/china24/20130129/103339.shtml>.
  • Wang, Jin-Feng, et al. “Estimation of citywide air pollution in Beijing.” PloS one 8.1 (2013):  e53400. Web.  <http://www.researchgate.net/publication/234134928_Estimation_of_citywide_air_pollution_in_beijing/file/d912f50f932ab97688.pdf>.
  • Wang, Tao, et al. “Air quality during the 2008 Beijing Olympics: secondary pollutants and  regional impact.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 10.16 (2010): 7603-7615. Print.
  • Wu, Q. Z., et al. “A numerical study of contributions to air pollution in Beijing during  CAREBeijing-2006.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 11.12 (2011): 5997-6011.  Print.

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