Just How Bad Is Air Pollution in China And How Can We Fix It?

Recently, a friend and I were catching up. Since the time we had last spoken, she had graduated college and taken a job working in Beijing. However, after holding this job for only a few months, she quit. I asked why. Besides trouble at work, she cited the city’s horrendous air quality as a primary reason for her departure. Apparently, she developed a headache and cough the very night of her arrival. These symptoms continued to plague her until she left the city, and were most likely attributable to pollution. 

After having this conversation, I decided to figure out exactly how bad the air quality issue in Beijing, and China in general, actually is. I also wanted to find out more about its primary causes, and what could be done to improve the situation. Here’s what I learned: 

air pollution in china
Credit: Ion Ceban, Pexels

China’s air quality is, to put it bluntly, very bad. In 2007, it was estimated that out of the 560 million Chinese city dwellers, only one percent breathed air deemed to be safe by the European Union. In fact, air pollution is estimated to have led to the premature deaths of 1.58 million Chinese citizens in 2016, and has no doubt compromised the health of millions more. While tragic, this isn’t surprising, given the vast number of large studies that have linked air pollution to low birth weight, miscarriages, lung disease, cognitive impairment, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and a host of other chronic health conditions which can significantly reduce both quality of life and lifespan.

The primary reason for China’s polluted air is emissions from coal plants. The rate at which the country consumes coal is monumental. Even as recently as 2016, coal generated 62% of China’s electricity. All in all, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 4 metric tons of coal humanity burns are burned in China. 

In addition to releasing carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, coal burning plants emit a vast number of chemicals that are damaging to both human health and the environment. The list of said chemicals includes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, cadmium, mercury, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, and PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). These are the compounds responsible for creating the public health crisis described above. 

Though the Chinese government has a long history of prioritizing growth above the health of its populace (a tendency largely responsible for the crisis described above) it has also quickly come to realize the severity of these air pollution issues, and has taken significant action to address them. Due to state funded efforts, China currently leads the world in terms of total installed solar photovoltaic capacity, and is continuing to invest heavily in renewables. There has also been a massive effort by the Chinese government to replace coal with natural gas, the emissions from which are quite a bit less dangerous for human health and the environment than those released by burning coal. The effects of these efforts have already become apparent; CNN reported last March that “average concentrations of pollutants fell in Chinese cities by 12% from 2017 to 2018, while the capital Beijing has fallen out of the top 100 most polluted cities following concerted efforts to get air pollution under control.

Of course, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. The aforementioned list is still littered with Chinese cities, and it will be a long time before China is generating the majority of its electricity from renewable sources. There are several ways in which you can help speed this transition. The best, in my mind, is by installing solar panels on your house. Investing in solar infrastructure provides a clear signal to engineers and corporations that solar is worth researching, developing, and manufacturing. Research and development (R&D) will help improve the efficiency of solar panels, and increased manufacturing volumes will lead to cheaper, more efficient production and recycling techniques. Improvements in both areas will make solar an ever more appealing option to the Chinese government and others looking to replace dirty energy generation with cleaner options. Additionally, you can share articles that draw attention to the numerous risks air pollution poses to public health, and or the benefits of switching to renewables.