What is China doing to tackle its air pollution?

China smog

The air in much of China is so bad the government has repeatedly declared “war” on it. The enemy are tiny particulates which spew forth from countless cars, coal-fired power stations and steel plants to create a dense, putty-coloured smog.

Beijing recently issued its first pollution ‘red alert‘, closing schools, factories and construction sites, and ordering half of all private cars off the road.

But these measures were only temporary. In a country where millions of people still look to industrialisation to lift them from poverty, what can China do to clear the air for good?

Four experts talk to the BBC World Service Inquiry programme.

Dr Jim Zhang: Frustrating that Olympic gains have been lost

Dr Jim Zhang, is a professor of global environmental health at Duke University and works in the US and China.

“You can definitely smell the pollution. Your eyes itch, you cough. It’s like a very rich, dense soup when the pollution levels are very high: thousands of chemicals, gases that are irritants, carcinogens.


“We have particles that have a diameter smaller than a virus. Human hair is very big compared to these. The larger ones will be deposited into the lung – that’s the biggest worry. But recent scientific evidence shows that when the particles are small enough they go into the bloodstream, they can go directly into the brain.

“It’s very hard to get data to show whether the pollution is going to have a long-lasting effect, like a cancer, but there is a reason to believe that, because the pollution soup contains chemicals which can induce cancer.

“It’s very frustrating to see pollution get worse after the huge effort which went into cleaning up the air in Beijing for the Olympics.

“I did several studies demonstrating that if you do a temporary intervention to bring the air pollution down, [and] measure cardiovascular and respiratory health indicators in young healthy people, all those indicators significantly improve.

“Women whose pregnancy was during those eight weeks of improved air quality got babies with a significantly higher birth weight, and we have a large database to show that in general if your birth weight is higher, your later life is healthier.

“In 2008 the air quality data was considered a state secret. The government was in a denial stage for years until 2013 when those huge episodes happened, and then they started to say ‘This is real now’. Because of [prioritising] economic interest over public health interest, the way they implement the existing air quality regulations is very inefficient.

“Although it’s now getting much better – the urgency is there – it’s still very challenging.”

Hongjun Zhan: Legislation is better; enforcement is still weak

Hongjun Zhan used to write China’s air pollution laws and now works for a US law firm advising foreign companies operating in China.

“Back in the late 1980s, people didn’t really think about air issues at that time. The pressure [to get the legislation right] was not big at all.

“From the late 1980s to, let’s say, the year 2000, just about a dozen years, that air quality has been getting worse and worse.

Average daily Air Quality Index categories for Beijing 2008 to 2015

“In many situations, industry discharges pollutants without meeting standards. And very often they are not penalised by the enforcement officers.

“The law drafters today are doing a much better job than I did. The environmental laws today are more aggressive: [more] detailed, accurate, and comprehensive than the law I wrote.

“Enforcement is still not good enough. It is slightly better, but it’s still far from where it should be.”

Li Yan: ‘Red alerts’ represent real progress

Li Yan is the voice of Greenpeace in China.

“Actually what’s happening in China right now is quite positive. [The red alert] is a sign of progress in government’s understanding of how they should react and respond to these extreme conditions.

“Not only is it responding to 20 million Beijingers’ demand for clean air, it’s also setting a precedent for many other Chinese cities to follow.

“After the ‘airpocalypse’ in 2011/2012, the central government responded with a National Air Pollution Action Plan. At the core of that is a scheme to cut back coal use in the big metropolitan regions.

People wearing protective masks on an overpass during the evening rush hour amid the heavy smog in Beijing, 7 DecImage copyrightReuters
Image captionDuring the ‘red alert’ people were urged wear masks and “take protective measures”

“Beijing’s extreme pollution and the ‘red alert’ are connected to China’s addiction to coal burning, and it’s very energy intensive way of industrial growth. Coal burning is the biggest single source of air pollution in China, and burning of coal, has for the first time in this century declined in 2014 compared to 2013.

“That’s a very significant thing. As a result air quality in the major cities like Beijing and regions in the Yangtze River Delta has seen improvements.

“Greenpeace has been capturing the government-released hour-by-hour data of 190 cities, and only 15% of them have seen an increase of their readings, and all the rest of them are more or less improved.

“We’re seeing renewable energy picking up and taking larger share of total power use in China, and then it’s actually already eating up the market space of coal.

“New coal power plants are still being proposed and still being invested [in] by local government and state-owned enterprises as if it was still the good old days. However I doubt there will be enough demand to support them, and they will very likely become idle plants.”

Mun Ho: Economic slowdown is complicating anti-pollution efforts

Mun Ho is an economist at the Harvard University China project, specialising in Chinese environmental policies, and is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC.

“The Chinese system is very decentralised: the provincial and local city authorities have a lot of power. And it is not a simple matter of the central government in Beijing pressing a button and all the laws are enforced.

“All the city environmental protection bureaus are in charge of enforcing [pollution] laws, and you can imagine there is a wide range of enforcement standards across the country.

“For the past 30 years, the main criteria of promotion other than maintaining security, is economic growth, the competition to bring jobs and growth.

This combination image of two photographs taken on December 3, 2015 (top) and two days earlier on December 1 (bottom) shows a skyscraper under clear skies and in heavy pollution, as seen in the central business district in Beijing.Image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
Image captionThe same building seen in Beijing on 3 December (above) and on 1 December (bottom)

“We should align incentives so that the environmental officials have the incentive to enforce the rules throughout the system, not just the central government.

“The unexpected economic slowdown and the prolonged global recession has been a new challenge. It is complicating efforts to convince people to put in costly pollution equipment and to think about energy-saving technologies.

“China is officially growing at about 7%, but that hides quite a big range of experience. In some places – in the ‘rust belts’ – growth has really decelerated, perhaps even to 2%.

“The priority obviously then is to prevent layoffs and factory shutdowns. They have to worry about social stability if there is high unemployment.

“The issue really is spending a bigger part of the government’s budget on pollution control equipment. Governments today are rich enough that this is no longer such a very big issue. We are not talking about building houses versus building pollution control equipment. This is no longer the stark choice facing China today.”

The Inquiry is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 12:05 GMT. Listen online or download the podcast.

Beijing to shut 2,500 small, polluting firms this year

Beijing to shut 2,500 small, polluting firms this year

BEIJING, Jan. 9 — Beijing will shut down 2,500 small and polluting firms in 2016 in itslatest environmental protection efforts, said the municipal government.

The Fengtai, Fangshan, Tongzhou and Daxing districts are required to close 2,500 smalland polluting enterprises at the end of this year while the whole city will finish the task in2017.

Structural adjustment in recent years has led to a dramatic fall of heavily polluting andhigh energy-consuming companies in the Chinese capital. But small polluting sources suchas restaurants, hotels, garages, and bath houses are increasing, said an official on Friday.

Vice Mayor Li Shixiang ordered safety and risk assessment and comprehensive lawenforcement in closure of small polluters.

Beijing aims to basically eliminate coal use in six downtown districts in two years and help600,000 households shift from coal to clean energy in five years.

The capital, hit by bouts of heavy smog this winter, plans to reduce coal consumption by500,000 tonnes in 2016 and close all coal-fired boilers throughout the city by 2020.

Despite Beijing’s effort to limit air pollution, its average PM2.5 reading in 2015 stood at80.6 micrograms per cubic meter, 1.3 times more than the national standard, official datashow.

Beijingers ride through smog to promote green transportation

Beijing-based cyclists recommend that people wear anti-pollution masks when riding a bicycle on smoggy days. Photo: Li Hao/GT

While smog and haze continue to shroud Beijing, residents are advised to stay indoors as outdoor activities are deemed unsafe and unhealthy. But those who live in urban areas still have to get around, and in today’s fast-paced society, the swiftest means of transport, a car or the subway, is king.

However, for some Beijing-based cyclists, riding is the best and only choice. A persistent group, they insist on cycling to and fro regardless of whether the sky is blue or a smoggy gray. They hope that their dedication to cycling can change the negative mindset that riding in smog is unsafe.

No cars please

On her colorful fixed gear bike, German Ines Brunn is among the coolest cyclists in Beijing. For Brunn, the founder and owner of Natooke bike store in Wudaoying Hutong in Beijing, biking has been her unchanged choice of transport.

“Even if the air is polluted, I still need to get around,” she said. “[In terms of inhaling the air,] there is not much difference if you walk or stand on the street waiting for a taxi, or you walk to the subway or you ride a bike.”

And if you take a taxi, you are contributing to the pollution, said Brunn.

A more responsible behavior, from her perspective, would be “try to reduce pollution rather than contribute to it.”

Beijing native Zhang Yanbo agrees. “When I was a child, there were not many cars, and I could even fly a kite in Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue. Today, there are traffic jams everywhere, and it is time people start changing their lifestyle.”

Zhang, a bike enthusiast, has never considered buying a car. Over the years, he has kept up the habit of traveling by bike, which takes him about two hours daily.

“Polluted air is not an obstacle for me. I only stop riding if it rains,” said Zhang.

Zhang Youjun persists in riding his bicycle to work regardless of whether it is clear or smoggy outside. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Youjun

Wearing a mask

In Zhang’s opinion, riding a bike in smog does not affect one’s health. He said he became aware that air pollution poses health risks for cyclists in Beijing in 2014.

An opinion leader in Beijing’s bike community, Zhang initiated a group buying effort to help bikers purchase a type of anti-pollution mask of the standard of gas masks used in manufacturing plants.

Zhang Youjun, who works in a real estate company in Beijing, rides one or two hours to work every day. Before he started using the anti-pollution mask, he wore an ordinary mask and intentionally kept his heart rate under 100, which means he rode at a slow speed.

He later realized the necessity of an anti-pollution mask for riding activities in Beijing.

“For example, on a polluted day when you finish riding, take off the anti-pollution mask and enter a room, even one with an air purifying machine, you immediately smell the pollution in the room,” said Zhang Youjun.

Brunn wears a mask that was designed by a triathlete in the UK who had the same issue in London two decades ago when he wanted to train for a triathlon, a long-distance race consisting swimming, bicycling, and running, but needed to cope with the air pollution caused by car exhaust fumes.

Cycling in winter

Air pollution levels can be especially high during the winter months when much of China depends on coal burning to remain warm. For those who do not want to go out on the street, cycling at home is also a worthwhile alternative, according to Zhang Yanbo.

“Cycling is an aerobic exercise that can be conducted at home,” he said. “Many people go to gym in winter. But some of the gyms are not equipped with air purifiers and the sealed space in fact makes the air quality even poorer,” he said.

He suggests that people buy a bike stand to work out on at home. “You turn on the air purifier, and then cycle for 40 minutes. You can achieve the goal of doing sports on smoggy days,” he said.

Brunn regularly organizes riding activities in Beijing’s suburbs. Cycling is labor intensive, so if the AQI is above 150 , she would call off the event. Now she tries to work out the precise smog forecast for the next 10 days.

Brunn checks three weather indexes every day. “I use an app to check the current level of air pollution. The smog forecast tells the next time when the air is good but I don’t know what’s in between,” she said. “Then I check the wind forecast because if there is wind from the northwest, it will blow the pollution away; if there is wind from the south, it will bring the pollution to us.”

Beijing’s avid cyclists say that when people take a taxi on smoggy days, they are still contributing to air pollution. Photo: CFP

Public awareness

Since smog and haze frequently hit media headlines, Chinese people’s awareness of environmental protection and sustainable development has increased substantially over the years.

In December 2015, the Beijing government issued its first red alerts on smog, the highest in a four-tier warning system, which prompted the implementation of traffic restrictions to lessen the number of cars on roads.

The government also launched campaigns to promote electric vehicles and build more bike lanes in the city.

“When the public understands the make up of smog and haze, I am sure that individuals will try to make lifestyle changes,” said Zhang Youjun. “The smog and haze may accelerate Beijinger’s speed toward a green lifestyle because no one would do harmful things to the environment as long as they are aware that they are wrong.”

Brunn said that over the past three years she has seen a big change in Chinese people’s environmental awareness.

“A lot of my friends, Chinese people, are talking about the environment. It is definite now that people realize that they can’t just spend money consuming and not care about the environment because, in the end, we are living here.”

She gave an example of how Germans have re-embraced bicycles. In the 1980s, more people started riding bicycles after realizing that “if we ruin the air we breathe, we ruin the water we drink and the food we eat, and we will get sick.”

Due to the overload of cars, cities were becoming unlivable, and parents who found no space for their children to play in town relocated to the suburbs. It caused a lot of problems in the city, she said.

Then the German government decided to restructure the city’s layout and created more space for pedestrians and cyclists by establishing bike-only areas and making people who wanted to live in the area park far away.

“In the old days people said no, I need my car. I need to park my car near my home. But now, many Germans have changed their minds,” said Brunn. “They kind of think that the quality of life is about being able to breathe, being free, being able to have space and safety, and they accept it.”

Northern China is suffering under a cloud of heavy pollution that is bigger than Spain

Fearing pollution, Chinese families build ‘bubbles’ at home ‹ Jiang Zhen, his wife Zhang Fang and their children Doudou (2nd R) and Dudu (2nd L) pose with a portable device that measures air quality and an air purifier in the children’s room, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. To match CHINA-POLLUTION/BUBBLE REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Jiang Zhen, his wife Zhang Fang and their children Doudou (2nd R) and Dudu (2nd L) pose with a portable device that measures air quality and an air purifier in the children’s room, on t… REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON + Jiang Zhen’s wife Zhang Fang fetches water from a mineral water tank, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. To match CHINA-POLLUTION/BUBBLE REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Jiang Zhen’s wife Zhang Fang fetches water from a mineral water tank, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing,… REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON + Jiang Zhen’s family, wearing protective masks, ride bicycles as they head to a children’s boarding school, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Jiang Zhen’s family, wearing protective masks, ride bicycles as they head to a children’s boarding school, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red a… REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON + Jiang Zhen, his wife Zhang Fang and their children Doudou (2nd R) and Dudu (2nd L) pose with a portable device that measures air quality and an air purifier in the children’s room, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. To match CHINA-POLLUTION/BUBBLE REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Jiang Zhen, his wife Zhang Fang and their children Doudou (2nd R) and Dudu (2nd L) pose with a portable device that measures air quality and an air purifier in the children’s room, on t… REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON + Jiang Zhen’s wife Zhang Fang fetches water from a mineral water tank, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. To match CHINA-POLLUTION/BUBBLE REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Jiang Zhen’s wife Zhang Fang fetches water from a mineral water tank, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever ”red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing,

By Alexandra Harney

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Liu Nanfeng has five air purifiers, two air quality monitors and a water purification system in his Beijing apartment. He buys organic. But still he worries for his 2-year-old daughter’s health.

“I feel safe at home, but when we go out to the mall, the indoor and outdoor air are the same,” the 34-year-old screenwriter said. “It feels hopeless.”

China’s persistent pollution and regular product safety scandals are driving an increasing number of consumers to build bubbles of clean air, purified water and safe products at home and in their cars.

Beijing’s city government has twice this month issued pollution “red alerts”, the first time it has triggered its most severe smog warning.

While there is no official data on their numbers, market analysts say Liu’s tastes reflect the concerns of a large and growing group of well-heeled urban consumers.

Foreign and domestic companies are starting to take notice of what could be called “bubble families”, a demographic whose emergence has been fueled by new technologies and the rapid spread of e-commerce.

Though air quality data has been available for years from the Chinese government – as well as the U.S. embassy and consulates around the country – public awareness of environmental threats is on the rise, especially since the February online release of journalist Chai Jing’s environmental documentary “Under the Dome”.

Websites such as Alibaba’s Taobao.com have made it easier to find products from overseas that are perceived as safer.


For Xue Peng, a 32-year-old chemical engineer in Shanghai, his wife’s pregnancy three years ago changed everything. “I had a life I needed to protect. It was my responsibility to give him a safe environment,” he said.

Xue spent about 30,000 yuan ($4,627) on two air purifiers from Philips and Swedish company Blueair and another 20,000 yuan on a water purification system from U.S. firm Ecowater. He limited his toy purchases to big, trusted names such as Lego and Fisher Pricehttp://tap2-cdn.rubiconproject.com/partner/scripts/rubicon/emily.html?rtb_ext=1&pc=11384/35590&geo=na&co=us

“Parenthood is a huge catalyst for consumption and upgrading of certain products,” said Elisabeth de Gramont, Shanghai-based vice president at Jigsaw Communispace, a consumer research group. Among upper middle class parents in China’s bigger cities, buying toys and skin care products for children from overseas is common, she said.

Min Yoo, managing director for China and Korea at market research firm YouGov, said that the group of Chinese consumers concerned about the environment and willing to spend money to protect themselves included “not just the white-collar cosmopolitan Chinese”.

“It also includes the 50-, 60-year-old local Chinese living in a city who has never been outside China, whose adult children would buy these products,” he said.

The growing public concerns have presented companies with an opportunity.

Bosch, the German electronics group, recently began selling an in-car air purifier and a small air quality monitor developed in China for the Chinese market.

Xiaomi, the homegrown electronics brand best known for its affordable phones, has launched a new line of air and water filters and monitors. During a November promotion, it sold more than 42,800 air purifiers. By mid-December, it had sold out of its newest model, released only on Nov. 24.

Origins Technology, a Beijing start-up, sold out of its 499 yuan Laser Egg handheld air quality monitors during this month’s smog wave. There is now a waitlist for the product.


Imports of bottled water are up sharply in volume terms, rising from 36 million litres two years ago to 46 million litres in the first 10 months of this year, according to Chinese customs.

Imports of food and live animals – Chinese customs includes them in the same category – rose 63 percent between 2011 and 2014. Online in China, Evian presents one of its boxes of water as “the choice of French mothers”.

Sales at Fruitday, an app and online platform for imported fruit, rose 150 percent in 2014 to 500 million yuan, the company said.

Reports of fake goods are common in China. Consumers who can afford to prefer more expensive products, said James Roy, associate principal at China Market Research Group.

High-end air purifiers such as the Blueair Pro XL cost 23,220 yuan, not much less than the average urban annual income of 28,844 yuan, according to government data.

Replacing all of the filters in other high-end air filters can cost hundreds of dollars.

Juliet Zhu, a TV presenter, had an air purifier and bought all of her two young daughters’ food and clothing from abroad. Her costs: as much as 20,000 yuan a month.

Two months ago, Zhu moved with her older daughter from Beijing to Sweden. She raves about the low cost of living, the delight of drinking from the tap, and the relief that her daughter can finally breathe freely.

(Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Tianjin issues first red alert for pollution

TIANJIN, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) — China’s northern port city of Tianjin issued its first ever red alert for air pollution, the most serious level, on Monday night, as it joins neighboring Beijing in fighting the lingering winter smog.

The red alert will last from 0:00 a.m. Wednesday to 6:00 a.m.Thursday, according to a government statement.

During the red alert, cars will be allowed on the roads depending on whether their license plate ends in an odd or even number, Enterprises and public institutions will adopt flexible working hours and large outdoor activities and construction work will be suspended.

Kindergartens, middle schools and primary schools will also cancel classes on Wednesday.

Key polluting industries will cut production as continuous cleaning operations are conducted in the city’s downtown areas.

Beijing issued its first ever red alert for air pollution on Dec. 7. Its second red alert will end on Tuesday. Enditem

Early alert helps public guard against pollution: Beijing official

BEIJING, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) — Beijing activated measures for the highest-level air pollution alert on Saturday morning, a move the local environmental regulator says will help mitigate pollution.

The Chinese capital issued its second red alert this month on Friday as smog is forecast to hit much of northern China, including Beijing, from Saturday to Tuesday.

Measures such as limiting vehicles on roads according to odd-even license plate numbers and banning fireworks and outdoor barbecues have been in force since 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning.

Yet some have questioned the necessity of implementing the measures so early when the air is just slightly polluted.

Wang Bin, head of the emergency response division of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, said Saturday that measures were enacted in advance to lessen the pollution’s impact and help the public prepare for the upcoming smog, which is forecast to be worse than the previous round this month.

Authorities said the red alert issued earlier this month prevented further deterioration of air quality. Data showed the average discharge of pollutants in the city dropped 30 percent just 10 hours after red alert measures were put in place.

The National Meteorological Center said Thursday that parts of north China will see the worst smog so far this year starting Saturday.

Visibility in Beijing and some neighboring regions will be reduced to less than one kilometer. The density of PM2.5, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers used to measure air quality, will exceed 500 micrograms per cubic meter in some regions. The World Health Organization’s recommended maximum is 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Citizens are advised to reduce outdoor activities, and kindergarten through middle school classes will remain suspended as long as the alert stays active.

Photographing Beijing’s Air Pollution

Published December 10, 2015, FRED DE SAM LAZARO

Zou Yi, a resident of Beijing, has taken more than 1,000 images of the city’s sky since 2013.

Yi takes two photos of the sky each day, posting them to Weibo (similar to Twitter) with information on air quality from China’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), an organization founded by Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun. IPE uses open data to engage public and private partners in the fighting against factory pollution.

Grantee Fred de Sam Lazaro speaks with Yi, whose work has inspired other residents of China to document the country’s air quality.