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.

Infographic

“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.

Indoor Air Pollution Causing Low Birth Weight: Doctors

NEW DELHI:  One of the major reasons for low weight among newborns in rural India was the continuous exposure of pregnant women to indoor air pollution, according to doctors.

Doctors have said indoor air pollution caused by the ‘chulhas‘ burning wood, coal and animal dung as fuel was the major factor behind the occurrence of a slew of diseases including respiratory diseases among women.

They said that apart from low birth weight, the continuous exposure of pregnant women to air pollution can also lead to brain deformity, asthma and improper growth among newborns.

“For a woman, the time between conception and birth is perhaps one of the most vital life stages.

“If a pregnant woman is exposed to too much of air pollution, carbon monoxide in the air causes interference in the passage of oxygen, which leads to oxygen insufficiency and hence results in low birth weight or even death,” said Bandita Sinha, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist at Apollo Hospital and Fortis.

As per data released by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), 5 lakh lives are lost in India every year due to indoor air pollution. Most of them are women and children.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently said that one of its focus areas in 2016-17 will be to raise awareness among rural women regarding the use of electricity or LPG stoves, in a bid to curb indoor air pollution.

Stating that during pregnancy, women mostly have to stay indoors, Dr Sinha said the smoke caused by cooking gas also makes newborns prone to catching diseases like pneumonia after birth because of a weak immune system caused by indoor air pollution.

Nilesha Chitre, gynaecologist at SRV Hospital, said: “People in rural parts of the country have to understand that the total suspended particles present inside a kitchen has 1,000 times greater chance to penetrate deep into the lungs than the suspended particles outside.

“Women are constantly exposed to chulha smoke in India due to several cultural mindsets,” added Dr Nilesha.

“There have been various cases where due to the continuous exposure to indoor air pollution, the nervous system of newborns also gets damaged. The pollutants are extremely poisonous for newborns, even leading to deaths,” she said.

new warning about deadly levels of pollution in many of the world’s biggest cities

The World Health Organisation has issued a stark new warning about deadly levels of pollution in many of the world’s biggest cities, claiming poor air quality is killing millions and threatening to overwhelm health services across the globe.

Before the release next month of figures that will show air pollution has worsened since 2014 in hundreds of already blighted urban areas, the WHO says there is now a global “public health emergency” that will have untold financial implications for governments.

The latest data, taken from 2,000 cities, will show further deterioration in many places as populations have grown, leaving large areas under clouds of smog created by a mix of transport fumes, construction dust, toxic gases from power generation and wood burning in homes.

The toxic haze blanketing cities could be clearly seen last week from the international space station. Last week it was also revealed that several streets in London had exceeded their annual limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions just a few days into 2016.

“We have a public health emergency in many countries from pollution. It’s dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with horrible future costs to society,” said Maria Neira, head of public health at the WHO, which is a specialist agency of the United Nations. “Air pollution leads to chronic diseases which require hospital space. Before, we knew that pollution was responsible for diseases like pneumonia and asthma. Now we know that it leads to bloodstream, heart and cardiovascular diseases, too – even dementia. We are storing up problems. These are chronic diseases that require hospital beds. The cost will be enormous,” said Neira.

Last week David Cameron, whose government has been accused of dragging its feet over air pollution and is facing legal challenges over alleged inaction, conceded in the Commons that the growing problem of air pollution in urban areas of the UK has implications for major policy decisions such as whether to expand Heathrow airport.

Asked by Tory MP Tania Mathias to pledge that he would never allow Heathrow to expand while nitrogen dioxide levels are risking the health of millions, Cameron said she was right to raise the matter, which was now “directly being taken on by the government”. Last December, after warnings from the Commons environmental audit committee and others, Cameron put off a decision on Heathrow expansion for at least another six months.

Government sources say Cameron and other ministers are now taking the air pollution issue far more seriously. In 2014 the prime minister was widely criticised for describing it as “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon”.

According to the UN, there are now 3.3 million premature deaths every year from air pollution, about three-quarters of which are from strokes and heart attacks. With nearly 1.4 million deaths a year, China has the most air pollution fatalities, followed by India with 645,000 and Pakistan with 110,000.

In Britain, where latest figures suggest that around 29,000 people a year die prematurely from particulate pollution and thousands more from long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide gas, emitted largely by diesel engines, the government is being taken to court over its intention to delay addressing pollution for at least 10 years.

Smog enveloping buildings on the outskirts of Delhi

The NGO ClientEarth, which last year forced ministers to come up with fresh plans to tackle illegal nitrogen dioxide levels in British cities, said that it would seek urgent court action because the proposed solutions would take so long to implement and produce cleaner environments. Under the latest government plan, announced before Christmas, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) promised clean air zones for five cities by 2020 in addition to one already planned for London. But this will mean it will take years before cities such as Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh feel the benefits.

Frank Kelly, director of the environmental health research group at King’s CollegeLondon, and an adviser to several governments on the health risks of pollution, told the Observer that air pollution had become a “global plague”. “It affects everyone, above all people in cities. As the world becomes more urbanised, it is becoming worse.”

Sotiris Vardoulakis, head of Public Health England’s environmental change department, said: “It’s the leading environmental health risk factor in the UK, responsible for 5% of all adult mortality. If we take action to reduce it, it will have multiple health co-benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions and healthier cities. Air pollution has an impact on NHS spending, but we have not quantified it.”

A new report from the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) says pollution is now also the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths. “It shortens people’s lifespan and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. It also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity,” said the EEA director Hans Bruyninckx.

Leading economist Lord Stern said air pollution was an important factor in climate change. “Air pollution is of fundamental importance. We are only just learning about the scale of the toxicity of coal and diesel. We know that in China, 4,000 people a day die of air pollution. In India it is far worse. This is a deep, deep problem,” he said.

The latest scientific research, published in the journal Nature, suggests that air pollution now kills more people a year than malaria and HIV combined, and in many countries accounts for roughly 10 times more deaths than road accidents.

According to the WHO, air quality is deteriorating around the world to the point where only one in eight people live in cities that meet recommended air pollution levels.

On Monday the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, will give evidence in a trial of 13 climate change activists who occupied a Heathrow runway in July, delaying or cancelling flights. The Labour MP, whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes Heathrow airport, has been a prominent opponent of the airport’s expansion and has strongly backed local residents who are resisting a third runway. At a rally in October he said: “In my constituency at the moment, people are literally dying. They’re dying because the air has already been poisoned by the aviation industry.”

India’s smog-shrouded capital pulls cars off roads

Asia-Pacific

India’s smog-shrouded capital pulls cars off roads

More than a million private cars were banned from New Delhi’s roads on Friday as authorities began testing drastic new measures to cut smog in the world’s most polluted capital. For 15 days from January 1, private cars will only be allowed on the city’s roads every other day to try to reduce pollutant levels, which regularly hit 10 times the World Health Organization’s safe limits. Cars with odd-numbered license plates will be allowed on the roads on odd-numbered dates, and those with even-numbered plates on the other days.

Studies have shown that the lungs of every third child in the city are impaired. We really are looking at a public health crisis.

Environmental expert Anumita Raichaudury

Hundreds of traffic police and volunteers took to the streets to enforce the scheme, including dozens of children wearing smog masks and holding banners urging drivers to comply. Most drivers appeared to be sticking to the rules Friday, with Delhi’s usually clogged roads flowing relatively freely. The restrictions, which run until January 15 on a trial basis, are part of a wider drive aimed at cutting pollution that also includes shutting some coal-fired power plants and vacuuming roads to reduce dust. In a measure of mounting concern, India’s Supreme Court recently ordered a temporary ban on large new diesel cars in Delhi and doubled a tax on diesel trucks.

We’ll have to undertake even sterner measures in the future to safeguard our health, and especially our children’s future. It has to become a movement.

Delhi State Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal

World’s Most Polluted City Plans Odd/Even Cars on Alternate Days

New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, plans to restrict the number of cars on its roads by implementing license-plate based driving bans.

India’s capital will allow passenger vehicles with license plates ending with odd and even numbers to ply on alternate days starting Jan. 1, Chief Secretary K.K. Sharma said Friday after a meeting of Delhi’s Cabinet. The plan is limited to those vehicles registered in the capital, he said in a televised briefing.

The step comes as India’s capital grapples with rising levels of air pollution as winter sets in triggering a surge in respiratory problems. Last week the government proposed to bring forward implementation of stricter new vehicle emission norms, a move that is being opposed by automakers.

The country’s second-most populated city had more than 2.6 million private cars registered at the end of March. The U.S. embassy in New Delhi on Friday evening classed the city’s air asunhealthy. It advised people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.

New Delhi was the world’s most polluted city measured by PM2.5 — tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases — with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a 2014 World Health Organization database. Nine other Indian cities rank in the top 15.

New Delhi Is Nearly as Polluted as Beijing Only Nobody Issues Smog Warnings

The Indian capital has no formal mechanism for issuing such alerts. As the world’s leaders congregated in Paris to discuss solutions to global warming, two of its biggest cities encountered some of the worst pollution they have seen in recent times — with significantly different government reactions.

While authorities in China’s capital Beijing issued an “orange alert,” warning citizens to stay inside and suspending outdoor activities in schools, there was no such warning given in India’s capital New Delhi, the Times of India newspaper reported.

True, Beijing’s particulate-pollution (PM 2.5) levels crossed 600 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday — over 24 times the World Health Organization’s permissible threshold — but the Indian capital was not far behind with its most polluted neighborhood showing readings of around 530.

The problem is that Delhi has no formal mechanism for issuing pollution-related alerts to its citizens, despite being deemed the world’s most polluted city by some measures.

At the climate talks in Paris, meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the responsibility of mitigating global pollution squarely on the world’s richer and more developed nations, repeating India’s long-held stance that Western countries should ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Taj Mahal: Indian authorities ordered to protect historic landmark from air pollution threats

When the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the “king of the world”, built a mausoleum for his wife from white marble on the banks of the Yamuna river, the domes and minarets of the Taj Mahal were what resulted.

Once gleaming white, now yellowing, the dome’s marble has been under threat from pollution from the black smoke that billowed from a wood-burning crematorium nearby. Now India’s Supreme Court has ordered a state government to remove the offending crematorium or make it environmentally friendly to protect the iconic monument in the city of Agra.

Built in the 17th century, the Taj Mahal was crafted by hand for Mumtaz Mahal, the “Chosen One of the Palace”, who died giving birth to the couple’s 14th child. Today, it attracts up to four million tourists each year. Uttar Pradesh has closed several nearby factories and made a conscious effort to supply uninterrupted power to the area to discourage residents from using fume-inducing, diesel-operated generators. On Monday the Supreme Court in Delhi heard that the local government could either move the crematorium away from the Taj Mahal or install an electric one in its place.

The Supreme Court judges made their order after receiving a letter from another Supreme Court judge, who said that he had noticed the mausoleum spewing smoke and ash during a recent visit to the monument and was concerned about the effect of air pollution on the marble structure.

In their order, two judges suggested that the state could move the wood-burning crematorium and also build an electric one at the current site. This would allow people wanting to use wood pyres to do so, while others could use the electric crematorium, they said.

Hindus traditionally cremate their dead using wood fires, but the government has tried to encourage the use of electricity-powered crematoriums in recent years due to concerns over damage caused by pollution. This year the state government also banned the burning of cow-dung fuel cakes, which are commonly used in rural areas as a cheap source of fuel for heating and cooking but contribute to dense black smog over the city of Agra.

In court on Monday, the Uttar Pradesh state government was accused of failing to pay enough attention to the finesse of the building during recent construction works in and around the white marble mausoleum. Work has been planned to build a stronger, 500-metre road around the Taj Mahal site but the state government has been reproached for the ugliness of the construction so far.

“Your engineers should be ashamed of themselves. Nobody is giving attention to the details of the construction,” Supreme Court justices told the Uttar Pradesh government on Monday. “People from all over the world come to see the monument and any construction done near Taj should be as good as Taj. You messed it up.”