Over the past few years, public awareness of China’s environmental issues have begun to reverberate.
During an air-quality crisis this February, the concentration of hazardous particulate matter — known as PM 2.5, since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less (far smaller than the diameter of a human hair) — rose to nearly 20 times the safe level.
Particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are believed to pose the highest health risks since they are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs and bloodstream.
There are underlying factors that led to this — rapid economic growth built on a foundation of an abundant supply of cheap, dirty fossil fuels, poorly regulated and heavily polluting factories and widespread urbanization.
Earlier this year, investigative journalist Chai Jing released a documentary that revealed the grim health effects of Beijing’s air.
Under the Dome — a film that some have dubbed a Chinese version ofInconvenient Truth — points the finger at China’s heaviest polluters: the industrial sector. The film was wiped from China’s Internet in just one week.
But the message was received.
“After [Under the Dome] I saw a noticeable in the number of people wearing masks,” Gallagher said.
His photo project, “The Masked City,” asks everyday Beijingers why they wear the mask.
“I found that all types of people of all ages can be found wearing masks now — from the elderly wearing them in parks as they do their daily exercises, to the mother and child on the morning school run, to sharply dressed businessmen in the CBD,” he said.
“It’s an issue everyone is aware of now.”
Numerous studies have pointed to the negative health effects that China now faces. The latest report claims that air pollution is killing about 4,000 people in China per day, accounting for one in six premature deaths in the world’s most populous country.
The University of California, Berkeley report, which was calculated using newly released Chinese air monitoring figures, found that about 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems stemming from the polluted air. Earlier studies put China’s yearly air pollution death toll at 1 to 2 million.
Under public pressure, the Chinese government has been taking steps to incentivize energy efficiency. It has shifted some power plants from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, among other measures.
The government has even banned new coal-fired power plants in major cities, and China’s renewable electricity growth has outpaced that of the U.S. in recent years, as well.
“It’s fair to say that the Chinese government is taking this very seriously, and taking very strong actions,” Ailun Yang, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, told Mashable earlier this year.
“Whether or not they’re strong enough to solve the problem in the period of time that the public wants to see [remains to be seen].”