Beijing Breathes Easier

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Beijing’s reputation for smog may be lifting. In 2013, the city’s pollution was so bad that people called it an “air-pocalypse.” Readings for PM2.5, a tiny pollution particle that can adversely impact human health, hit 900 micrograms per square meter, 90 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended daily levels.

People protested against the poor air quality and coal plants, and that same year, the government introduced new regulations and set up hundreds of monitoring stations. Now, the city has blue sky sunny days—but it’s uncertain if that pollution is simply occurring elsewhere in the country since China plans to expand its domestic coal industry

Why This Matters: Air pollution is a killer and one of the leading causes of early death in people. Worse yet, poor air quality causes 1 million deaths in China each year. Cleaning up Beijing’s air means that the city’s 21 million residents are able to live healthier lives. Cleaner air and blue skies might also continue to drive China’s environmental strategy—recent research suggests that “the low-carbon energy policies, traditionally regarded as a primary result of climate mitigation, are likely driven more by the efforts on air quality attainment in China.”

Clearer Skies Could Mean Warmer Temps: Most of China’s clean air policies have focused on reducing aerosols and pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2). While this is good for people’s respiratory health, it might have the inadvertent impact of increasing temperatures by 0.1 degree Celsius. Sulfate aerosol emissions are terrible for the lungs, but they also can absorb and reflect solar radiation. From 2006-2017, sulfur dioxide levels in China fell by 70 percent, reducing their cooling effect.

“The success of Chinese policies to further reduce aerosol emissions may bring additional net warming, and this ‘unmasked’ warming would in turn compound the challenge and urgency of international climate mitigation efforts,” the study authors write. “This unmasked warming may require more efforts to mitigate climate change. . . Policymakers could consider implementing measures that simul- taneously help to reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases. For example, future policies in China could facilitate the introduction of more renewable energy to the country’s coal-dominated energy system.”

China’s Coal Plans: Despite its pledge of climate neutrality by 2060, China is planning to build 43 new coal-fired power plants. China is the world’s most polluting country (not taking historic emissions into account) and is building three times more coal-fired power than the rest of the world combined. It’s not just coal the country is building through—about 50% of global renewable energy capacity growth in 2020 came from China as well.

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