Smog in China


Hello and welcome to our Podcast. Our team consists of Sebastian, Torben and me – Alex. We would like to introduce you to the topic of air pollution – also called smog – in China. We will start off with the reasons for the tremendous amount of smog especially in big Chinese cities. The next part deals with different effects and implications for human health for example. In the end we will discuss various approaches to deal with or fight the smog.


Let’s begin with the various causes for air pollution.

We would like to introduce you to three different aspects concerning the smog in China. The most important causes for air pollution are the coal-fueled industry and car exhausts especially in big cities. Since a big part of our ASBE-Course is going to study in Shanghai or Beijing and the amount of smog in these cities is relatively high, we would like to show you different regional aspects concerning these cities.

Let’s take a closer look at the Chinese Industry. In terms of population and gross domestic product China is the largest developing country in the world. In the last 20 to 30 years, China experienced a skyrocketing economy and managed to become the second biggest national economy of the world. At the same time, air quality became worse and worse. Today, a lot of the most polluted cities of the world are located in China. One of the reasons for this development is, that the recent growth of China is powered by its tremendous amount of exports. Compared to the industry needed for the Chinese market, the export industry is a lot more energy intensive. Since 2001 China experiences strongly rising exports what also makes their customers – often times Germany – at least to some degree responsible for this development. Of course, the fact that China depends a lot on its exports cannot be the only reason. The biggest problem is that the energy needed for the industry is obtained by coal – one of the “dirtiest” forms of energy. In 2008 China gained 75% of its energy demand by coal-burning whereas the share of coal in the energy production of the United States was just less than 25%. China is the biggest emitter of CO2 and is responsible for about 25% of the global air pollution. But if you look at the emission in context with the amount of people in China, you recognize that the air pollution per head ratio is still global average.

To get an idea about the Chinese coal consumption please look at the following figure. You can see that in 2011 China consumed nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. The consumption of the rest of the world was stagnating whereas China’s consumption was still growing. Today in 2014, China’s share of the global consumption accounts for roughly 55%. On this figure you can see the distribution of different energy resources used by China to cover its energy needs. No other country depends more on coal than China, but also no other country has as much coal reserves as China. It’s also important to note that the relative amount of oil, nuclear energy and renewable energy is very low compared to European and American countries.

Let’s take a look at the air pollution caused by cars. As you can see on the left side car sales skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Especially German companies successfully tried to get their share out of the Chinese automobile market. Note that the car sales haven’t even nearly reached their peak. You can get an idea about the upcoming sales potential if you look at the right figure which displays the amount of cars owned per 100 urban households. If you think that the recently reached 33 cars per 100 households in Beijing is a lot, just look at the numbers in Germany. In 2010 we had 101,6 cars per 100 urban households. Put that number in relation to the Chinese growing middle class and population to get an idea about the potential for future car sales in China…                  The traffic related smog in Beijing is mostly due to its 5 million cars. In general, you can say that the share of smog caused by cars differs between 5 to 30 percent, depending on the city you look at.

Another interesting fact is that around 50% of the traffic related pollution is caused by 10% of all cars. We will take a closer look at this problem and its possible solution in the later parts of this podcast.

Since ten students out of our ASBE course will go to Beijing or Shanghai, we decided to look at these two cities a bit closer. Beijing is located in the north of China whereas Shanghai is round about in the middle. The distance is about 1000 kilometers. Because of the more northern location and other factors, Beijing is a lot colder in winter. The monthly average temperature is around 10°C under the temperature in Shanghai. You may ask yourself where the connection to smog is. In China most of the households use fossil energy resources like coal for heating during winter so the general air quality is a lot worse at winter-times. Since pollution in winter is a lot more serious than in summer you can imagine that – because of the differences in the climate – pollution in Beijing is a lot more serious than in Shanghai. On average the air pollution level is 50% higher in Beijing than in Shanghai. This difference is not only due to the colder winter. Beijing also suffers under regular sand dust storms which also carry health-damaging particles into the city. Another point is that you can find a lot of mountains at the northern side of Beijing. That’s why often times the smog is trapped and can’t be taken away by the wind. Shanghai in contrast is surrounded by a flat countryside and the ocean. And last but not least, there are less cars in Shanghai. We couldn’t find exact, reliable or official numbers, but the numbers we could find differed between one and two and a half million cars compared to Beijing’s five million cars.



Thanks Alex, your reasons for smog shifts me now to the consequences to the environment, the people and the economic cost caused by smog


The environment

Smog is composition of different chemical substances. Since this is not a chemistry lecture, all you need to know is that the industry, cars and all pollutants emit anthropogenic substances like sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM). The United States definition categorises these particulates by size. Whereby smaller particulates are more dangerous because they can lay down deeper in the lungs of living organism. By reaction with the air and other substances that are by default in our air and substances from biogenic origin like farming higher and more dangerous concentrations of air pollution arise.

These new and more intensified substances, or rather contaminated aerosol is visible because polluted air is not as transparent as clean. By the intense of the solar radiation it is possible to measure air pollution.

The consequence of sulphur dioxide is global warming. By default there is a global warming procedure, but it is expected that global warming by human is at least doubled the entire process. It is difficult to measure only the air pollution from China to Chinas own environmental problems because the eco-system knows no boundaries. But the consequences of global warming are fairly clear. Less rainfalls, soil erosion, melting ice, dying ecosystem or extreme weather conditions are all effects to the nature that also applies to China.

Particulate matter is more measureable and Chinese people use these daily values as orientation of the smog intensity. Shanghai one of the lesser polluted city has a daily average value of 99 ug/m-3, whereby most German cities have values around 10 till maximal 25 ug/m-3. But Beijing is topping this with 149 ug/m-3, and in Jinzhou a city 4 hours northeast from Beijing values 280 ug/m-3 of can be measured daily.

The people

These huge particulate matter have serious consequences to the people. I read through a bunch of papers, all about health effects due to air pollution and two major organs of the human body are effected. The heart, or rather cardiac and the lungs. I collected there the most common cancers that occur in these papers.

To sum it all up, there is a scale that determines the deaths of people by smog in China. These are more than 1 million people who die yearly on the consequences of smog in China. … And these are 40% from the world population that’s dies of smog.

And it gets even worse. If China is not about to improve the problem even more people will die on this issue, because the rate of particulate matter pollution is linear linked to the increase of deaths!

Another graphic may relativize the danger of smog because it seems, that only older people are seriously affected, but the standard deviation has a huge span and this is per 10 ug/m-3 of particulate matter.

In 2010 dying because of high blood pressure was ranked as the top place followed by smoking. These two factors applies to most of the countries except Africa. On place three we have diet low in fruits what is also alarming and the worst value overall nations but not this topic. But fact is, that ambient particulate matter pollution is the number four in the global burden of disease.

And by now we did not even speak of the side effects of smog in daily life limitation and declining sense of life and these hard to quantify impacts.

The economic

We all know that the economy in China is huge, but are there any measureable effects by air pollution? Yes. Only for Shanghai in 2001 more than a half million US $ and in 2004 more than 2500 million US $ and it is expected that 2020 the economy losses more than 6000 US $. However different people have calculated these values, with different formulas and therefore an exact value is impossible but an indication of these immense cost.

In total we can assume that 2009 the economy lost 106.5 billion US $ which is yearly 2 till 7 percent of the gross domestic product.

Counter measures

So how is China fighting the air pollution?

There are two different ways, they do: Firstly they try to stop the air pollution at its source. Secondly they aim to lower the effects of the pollution.

So let’s start to fight the smog at it’s source!

To stop the air pollution at the source china introduces more and better air-filters in companies with high smog emission. Especially the coal fire stations can lower their emissions significantly with new and powerful filter systems.

The next option is not that sustainable but is used in case of urgent air pollution: China cut its production in the main air polluting production facilities.  The same strategy is used on big building sites: They can be closed, until the air pollution reaches an acceptable value.

One of the most public measures is the ban on vehicles in the big cities on specified dates. If ones car has the wrong license number, he is not allowed to drive on this day. In the last month, China also decided to remove the dirtiest cars completely from its streets. In 2014 the Chinese government plans to ban about 6 million cars especially in Beijing and the coastal regions. Another 5 million cars will be discarded in 2015. Additionally the number of new cars licensed will be reduced by 40% and cars with regenerative engines will be preferred.

Another from European countries well known measure is the “Umweltzone” – areas in the center of big cities where no heavily polluting cars are allowed. These areas could also be a city-toll areas, to reduce the overall traffic.

The second category of countermeasures contains all measures which lower the effects of the air pollution.

The simplest way to reduce these effects is to wear a respiratory mask, which can absorb very small toxic particles (called PM 2.5). Those masks work mostly with charcoal absorbers, which are popular in toxic industry sectors. The Chinese traffic policemen got new masks called “blue noses” to protect them in their everyday work in the big cities.

Another related method helps to clean the air in the flats and offices: So called air purifiers can be placed in any room one wants to be “clean”, usually the bedroom and offices. It filters the air by a fan which blows the air through charcoal absorbers. These little machines are partly expensive, but could also be built on one’s own for little money.

China is one of only a few countries, where the next measure is possible: The construction of wind corridors – paths for the wind, without air polluting companies or interfering high buildings. These corridors should enable the wind to blow the polluted air easier out of the city and to bring relief for the population of the city centers. To realize these corridors, companies have to close and buildings will be destroyed.

A quite new and spectacular measure is the use of chemicals (for example liquid nitrogen) to reduce the density of toxic particles in the air of the cities. These chemicals have to be deployed either with drones or in sprinklers on high buildings to avoid health effects for the population. This procedure is rather risky, because of unknown side effects for people and the environment. After that the quantity of energy needed to produce so much liquid nitrogen will be tremendous.

As you can see, there are various ways to fight the air pollution, but there is still a long way to go for China!

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56 Responses to Smog in China

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  49. scheibnerl says:

    Bisher wusste ich noch nicht so viel über die Gründe und Konsequenzen des Smogs in Peking. Dank eures Gruppen-Podcasts bin ich nun reichlich mit Zahlen, Daten und Fakten versorgt.

    Neben den reichlichen Informationen zu z.B. den Expansionsraten, der Verteilung von Autos auf die chinesische Population und das dahintersteckende Potenzial für Automobilhersteller, die genutzten Energiezufuhren in China, fand ich es besonders interessant, welche Faktoren dazu führen, dass Shanghai unter wesentlich geringerem Smog zu “leiden” hat als Peking. Für mich steht Peking für den Inbegriff einer “versmogten Stadt”.

    Ich denke, es ist für uns alle noch recht schwer nachvollziehbar wie die Lebensumstände unter dem Smog sind (außer man hat schon in einer großen, unter Smog stehenden chinesischen Stadt gelebt). Für alle diejenigen unter uns, die dann in Peking leben werden, wird es sicherlich eine Umstellung sein an manchen Tagen mit einer Atemschutzmaske vor die Tür zu gehen und nur wenige Meter aus dem Fenster schauen zu können. Ich bin schon auf die Berichte gespannt!

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