China is the world’s most populous country with a 2019 population of approximately1.4 billion. Its total land area is 9.6 million square kilometres which make itthe world’s fourth-largest country by area. The capital of China is Beijing,although this is not the largest city, Shanghai is.
In 2019 China ranked as the 11th dirtiest country in the world. The USAQI figure for this year was 110. The concentration level of the PM2.5pollutant was 3 times above the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendedlevels.
Beijing residents were subjected to “Moderate” levels of pollution for just two monthsin 2019, August and September. For the remaining ten months they experiencedair quality that was classified as “Unhealthy for Sensitive groups”, accordingto levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. With a PM2.5 average in2019, of 42.1 µg/m³ the air quality is slowly improving when compared toprevious years. 50.9 µg/m³ and 58.8 µg/m³ were the respective concentrationsfor 2018 and 2017.
In 2019, the cleanest city in China was LInzhi, situated in Tibet with a recordedUS AQI figure of 27. By contrast, China’s dirtiest city was Hotan in Xinjiangprovince with a recorded US AQI figure of 179.
Air pollution is a major problem in China and, as such, poses a huge threat topublic health. Particulates are formed in two main ways. Primary sources include the combustion of coal, fossil fuelsburnt in vehicle engines and general biomass combustion. Emissions from powerstations are considerably higher than those recorded in other industrialisedcountries. This was mainly due to the fact that factory emissions were notsubjected to any type of filtration system before release. This, however, ischanging as more and more factories are required to retrofit flue-gasdesulphurisation technology which removes most of the harmful sulphur dioxide(SO2) from the fumes.
The causes of China’s widespread air pollution can be attributed to a number offactors: the enormous economic boom which is currently taking place, a largeincrease in the number of motorised vehicles, population growth, increase inmanufacturing outputs, and natural reasons which include the surroundingtopography and seasonal weather.
For instance, the number of vehicles registered in Beijing is 3.3 million and thisfigure increases by 1 further 1200, each day. Emissions from vehiclescontribute to almost 70 per cent of Beijing’s polluted air. The most dangerousones being; PM2.5, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2)and carbon monoxide (CO). Modern vehicles tend to utilise modern technology andare fitted with various parts which reduce the dangerous particles which areemitted. The expanding population in China and especially in large metropolisessuch as Beijing and Shanghai contributes to air pollution. The population inBeijing alone has risen from 11 million to 16 million in just 7 years and iscontinuing to increase annually.
In northern China, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, principallycoal, is causing people to die on average 5.5 years sooner than they otherwisemight.
Coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants in China.Approximately 66 per cent of China’s power is produced by coal. It was reportedthat in 2014, the annual tonnage of coal used was 4 billion. This figure wasmore than the rest of the world, combined. In the area around Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei1.8 billion tons of coal was used in this year.
Recently, China has made a lot of progress in an attempt to get its air cleaner. Between2013 and 2017 the levels of PM2.5 were reduced by 33 per cent in at least 74cities. The following year, it fell by a further 10 per cent. During August 2019, Beijing experienced thelowest PM2.5 reading since records began. It stood at just 23 µg/m³,(micrograms per cubic metre). If this level continues to drop, then Beijingwill fall out of the top 200 most polluted cities in the world table. TheChinese government has made a concerted effort by encouraging the change fromcoal to natural gas as a source of power, both for homes and industry. Anothermajor factor is that it has the most electric vehicles on its roads than anyother country.
The Chinese government is investing heavily to combat pollution. Over $277 billion were pledged by the Academy for Environmental Planningin 2013. In 2012, cities began to adopt the Environmental Air Quality Standardsas a way of improving the quality of air found in its cities. This has provedto be very effective because the recorded levels of PM2.5 and sulphur dioxide(SO2) dropped by 42 and 68 per cent, respectively, between 2013 and2018.
In 2012, a spokesperson for the China Medical Association warned that airpollution would become the biggest threat to the nation’s heath unless stepswere taken to redress the situation. One of the most noticeable reductions inpollutants was the reduction of sulphur dioxide (SO2). This could beattributed to the use of flue-gas desulphurisation technology which was widelyencouraged to be introduced at power plants.
The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, known as Jing-Jin-Ji recorded an annual average PM2.5concentration of 93 µg/m³, in 2014. China has a standard figure of 35 µg/m³ towhich it tries to adhere to, whereas the recommended limit as suggested by theWorld Health Organisation is 10 µg/m³. Becauseof the localised topography, the smog often stays in the atmosphere for daysand obviously poses a serious health threat.
In 2013, The Chinese government began to take action against this situation.Several mitigating actions were implemented in 2013 with the issuance of the AirPollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. In order to support thisinitiative a US$500 million loan was approved by The World Bank for the InnovativeFinancing for Air Pollution Control in Jing-Jin-Ji Program in March 2016. Thegovernment also designated the commercial Hua Xia Commercial Bank as arecommended source of loans specifically aimed at financing air qualityimprovement schemes. The main focus was centred on the Jing-Jin-Ji triangle andthe surrounding provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Henan.
With the financial help from this programme, the Wangping Power Company hasinstalled two heat recovery units and a 21-kilometre length of thermal pipeworkto Huairen County. This alone has eliminated the need of 10 smaller powerproduction units that were previously used to provide heat for the localresidential neighbourhood. This will reduce the levels of emissionsconsiderably.
Another project which received financial assistance from this programme was theQingyuan Food Company, in Shandong province. They manufacture noodle, biscuits,cornflour and other food products. Its power and heat plant provide winter heatto residents and steam to smaller businesses nearby. After receiving thefinancial assistance, the company increased its generation capacity and alsolevels of its efficiency and is now able to supply winter heat to 300,000 homesand 160 smaller localised businesses. This improvement meant that 35 local boilerswere no longer required and could be closed down.
This forward-thinking company has also retrofitted its chimneys with the latestdesulphurisation and denitrification filters and has dust filters running at 95per cent efficiency.
According to figures released on the reputable IQAir.com website, the cleanest air in China is found in Tibet.In December 2020 the city of Linzhi recorded a US AQI figure of 50. It was alsovoted as China’s cleanest city in 2019 with an average annual figure of 27.
Other pollutants were recorded at relatively low levels, but there is room forimprovement. PM2.5 concentrations were 15 µg/m³, and the PM 10 figure was 20µg/m³. Ground-level ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2)were recorded at 73 µg/m³ and 7 µg/m³, respectively. The remaining twopollutants which are often measured were sulphur dioxide (SO2) andcarbon monoxide (CO) at 6 µg/m³ and 600 µg/m³, respectively.
The way forward must be with the use of renewable energy which produces nopollution. Solar power and wind energy are ideal substitutes for coal and otherorganic matter.
One innovative company that controls and operates the highways in and around Jinan,the capital city of Shandong province has installed photovoltaic panels overthe open spaces that run alongside the highway. There are also installed neartunnel entrances and on top of their toll booths and restrooms. Any power thatis generated in this manner is sold to the local power company and goes intothe national grid.
In 2018 this company opened what was to be the first solar highway in the world.The roadway is just 1 kilometre in length and contains over 10,000 photovoltaic(PV) panels. These panels catch the sunlight and convert it into electricity.It could be used to melt snow and ice that form on the road during the wintermonths which will make driving much safer. Electric vehicles that use theirnetwork of roads will be able to recharge their vehicles, wirelessly, whilstdriving across these special sections.
Chinese state-owned utility company Huanghe Hydropower Development has recentlycompleted building the world’s largest solar farm. The panels have beeninstalled over an area of desert in Qinghai province in the northwest of thecountry. Construction of the plant commenced in November 2019 and was completedin September 2020. The generated power will be sold to the national gridsystem. The complex is connected to an ultra-high voltage power line which willconnect to the more densely populated areas in the east.
From 1st November 2019, any motor vehicle which was not registered byBeijing will only have 12 permits issued each year. Before these new measureswere introduced, around 700,000 non-Beijing-registered cars were entering thecity centre on a daily basis. This number is the same as ALL the carsregistered in Hong Kong.
In 2015, 50,000 permits were issued, by the following year, the number rosesharply to 100,000 per day. In 2020 the figure stands close to 1 million perweek.
The government also aims to cap the number of local vehicles too by the end of2020. The limit is set at less than 6 million per day. The city has recentlymade vast improvements to its public transportation system and openlyencourages its residents to make full use of them. 22 subway lines operatewithin the city with a total combined length of 602 kilometres. A further 400are planned before the end of 2021.
Obtaining a local license plate is a lottery as only a certain amount are made availableeach month and are vastly oversubscribed. A 30 year old driver was quoted asstating that he had had his car licensed outside Beijing for 3 years. He worksand lives in the suburbs and seldom drives into the city centre. He complainsabout the poor level of public transport available in the suburbs and oftenrelies on the use of his friends’ cars to commute. He went on to say that hehad been trying to get a local plate for the last 6 years but to no avail.
In 2018 a traffic reduction system had been in operation for almost a decade. Thesystem is based on the last digit on the license plate. The policy requiresautomobiles with end numbers 1 or 6, 2 or 7, 3 or 8, 4 or 9 and 5 or 0respectively from Monday to Friday to refrain from driving in or towards thecity centre. Electric vehicles are exempt from these restrictions, as are otherclassifications of vehicles. Emergency service vehicles, police and militaryvehicles and tourist buses are also exempt.
There is also a smog alert system in place which reduces the number of vehicles inthe city centre by 50 per cent when a red alert condition is expected. Thistotal ban on vehicle entering the city remains in place until the smog beginsto clear. Only then are motorists allowed to continue their journey.
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