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The Rescue of “Beijing Cough”

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Beijing was hit by waves of “beyond index” air pollution at the beginning of 2013. The maximum concentration of PM2.5 reached 800-1000µg/m3 on Jan 12 in the downtown, compared to the safe threshold of 25µg/m3 recommended by World Health Organization.  This was not the first time that Beijing is in brown haze, and there might be worse to come. Beijing residents are extremely upset, if not indignant, about the air pollution. They can probably bear the corruption but can hardly endure the “crazy bad” pollution, as it's all about their breath and their health.  Their daily lives have never been impacted so badly, so directly and so extensively.  

After visiting my family in south China in early January, I took the world longest and most modern high speed train from Guangzhou to Beijing and arrived in the midst of “Beijing Cough”.  I felt there is no better way to describe what “magical realism” is as shown in Mo Yan’s Nobel winning novels than what I had seen in nine hours. “The world longest distance is even I stand in front of Tiananmen but cannot see the figure of Chairman Mao”, which certainly is a popular joke in Sina Micro-blog, Chinese version of Twitter, but an indicator of how serious the pollution is.

Beijing’s air pollution represents a system failure exposed in a bad weather condition. Beijing’s basin topography makes air pollutants easy to accumulate but hard to diffuse, highly dependent on wind. A severe cold and calm winter, with more heating and driving pollutants but no wind to blow them out, is the worse situation for Beijing. However, it won't be so severe with good governance and timely response.

A widely cited research on Atmospheric Environment using 2000 data shows the major sources of PM2.5 mass in Beijing were determined as dust (20 percent), secondary sulfate and nitrate (27 percent), coal combustion (7 percent), diesel and gasoline exhaust (7 percent). Today’s Beijing is by no means the one 10 years ago. The population has grown from 14 million in 2000 to 20 million in 2010. The motor vehicle ownership up from 1.5 million to about 5 million, 70 percent is private cars. This makes gasoline exhaust up to 20 percent of Beijing’s PM2.5 source.

Beijing's problem also has a regional root. A news release of Ministry of Environment shows one quarter pollutants come from nearby provinces and regional sources.  NASA released a satellite image depicts clearly the Beijing and its surround areas, Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, the North China plain, were suffering air pollution in the same extent. Beijing has moved out its biggest steel producer to Hebei province along with other polluting industry elsewhere but it seems less helpful if it’s a regional cause. A regional problem needs regional collaboration. This is extremely difficult in a political system in which local governments’ environment responsibilities are dominated by economic achievements.

It is not easy to tackle such a complicated problem, but clearly something needs to be done under huge public pressure and major international image concern.  Some experts even show their hopelessness for any improvement in 20 years. However, the seriousness of the problem is not an excuse for inaction, but an emergent alert for immediate reaction.  While long term solution takes longer time and efforts, there are many short term even immediate improvements Beijing can do.

It’s fundamental to figure out the real sources of the air pollutants. A monitoring and reporting system with transparent and real data will be helpful to inform the public. It’s key to phase out the city’s dirty coal-burn heating facilities with cleaner sources such as gas and electricity.  Efforts to encourage public transit and promote the standards of gasoline and emission of automobile will be paid off. More importantly, to foster a comprehensive transformation that combines basic research, city/transport planning, environmental response, government governance, and human behavior change so to make the air people breathe clean air.  The Beijing government and residents might miss the blue sky days before and during the 2008 Olympics, but are they ready for the needed actions beyond the scale that had taken for preparing the Olympics?

Beijing’s cough is also a syndrome of the middle kingdom’s state of health. The world largest energy consumer and carbon emitter consumed almost half of global coal production in 2012. This trend may continue in the coming decade to feed its expanding cities and growing middle class. It’s time to rethink about China’s development path and pay more attention to the environment. Otherwise, a Chinese Dream can only be a dream.

Gang He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at University of California, Berkeley.