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Smog Days: Air Pollution in China

Apr 30 , 2019

A few weeks ago, I was in Beijing on a day with a PM2.5 reading of 200. 

PM2.5 measures the fine particulate matter present in the air. Air pollution can be made up of many components (both naturally-occurring and human-caused); PM2.5 is the component thought to be more directly associated with severe health impacts, including premature death. A PM2.5 of 200 — what I experienced that day in Beijing — is eight times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) quality guideline value for PM2.5. On days like that, vulnerable populations (like children, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions) are advised to remain indoors. 

PM2.5 measures a range of fine particles, but they are all toxic and incredibly small, meaning they can get into the lungs and even the bloodstream over time. In terms of harmful exposure, a PM2.5 of 200 is equivalent to smoking nine cigarettes in one day. 

There are immediate impacts too. On that day in Beijing my skin was very itchy and dry, and my nose and throat were coated in a layer of matter that no amount of water could clear away. It was so hazy that the tops of many tall buildings were not visible, and the sky was completely grey. 

As I wandered around the 798 art zone in Chaoyang district, most people seemed unperturbed by the air—maybe a few more people wearing face masks than usual, but nothing dramatic. For billions of people, not just in China, but all over the world, toxic air pollution is a daily fact of life. I was surprised by my own adaptivity: in the evening a strong wind had helped to blow the smog out of the city limits and the PM2.5 had dropped to 75. I admired the sunset, the foul conditions from earlier already far away in my mind. 

Just before that day I spent two weeks in Yunnan province, in Southwest China. I speak Mandarin, and interacted with many different people during my travels. Although our conversations were diverse, I asked everyone I met the same two questions. 

I would first ask where in China they were from. If they moved to Yunnan from somewhere else, I would always ask why, and I always received the same response: because of the environment. 

One couple I spoke with had two young children, and they shared how difficult the decision was. They felt it compromised their children’s educational opportunities to raise them in Yunnan instead of Beijing. But, they told me, at the end of the day the air and environment were the most important things. 

In 2012 and 2013, cities in China experienced extreme levels of air pollution (Shanghai had a day with a PM2.5 of 600), and national attention focused on urban air pollution in an unprecedented way. The next year, Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” on air pollution at a meeting of parliament. Then in 2015, CCTV reporter Chai Jing’s self-funded documentary “Under the Dome”, a full-length special on PM2.5, its causes and its impact on human health, went viral

Within a few days of its release “Under the Dome” garnered more than 150 million views and featured in over 280 million posts on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform. Some commentators hailed this as China’s “Silent Spring” moment. However, although the Chinese government originally supported the documentary, it was fully censored within a week of its release and removed entirely from the Chinese web. The full documentary is still available on YouTube here

Many people believe that that air pollution has become such a prominent issue because it impacts and concerns everyone alike — rich and poor, young and old, healthy and frail. The truth is that experiences with and responses to all types of environmental degradation (including air pollution) are shaped by individuals’ socioeconomic status, resources, political and social capital, and even gender. 

In fact, household air pollution from burning solid fuel (such as crop residue, coal, or wood) for cooking and heating is almost on par with industrial air pollution in China. In 2010, 0.6 billion people were estimated to regularly use solid fuels, constituting 38% of country-wide PM2.5 emissions (almost on par with the 41% of emissions that result from industry). 80% of the households using solid fuel are rural households. 

Women are disproportionately impacted by household PM2.5 emissions because they perform most of the kitchen work and cooking. Children and the elderly also experience high levels of exposure, as they are the most likely to stay home during the winter months when solid fuel is burned for heat. 

The realist view, then, acknowledges that air pollution in big cities receives so much attention in part because it also impacts middle and upper classes; people who expect a certain level of immunity from toxic pollution. These dynamics are not unique to China; all over the world, the most marginalized people in our societies almost always experience the worst impacts of pollution, possess the fewest resources to fight pollution, and benefit the least from the causes of pollution (such as the burning of fossil fuels). 

Since 2012 and 2013 the government has made concerted efforts to tackle air pollution. These efforts do include addressing rural PM2.5 emissions, but the greatest accomplishments so far have come from aggressive policies to curb urban air pollution

Air pollution is a complex problem, and discussions about environmental issues in China must always include consideration of the ethics of placing the burden of fighting climate change on nations that have not (at least historically) contributed to the problem as much as the U.S. and other Western nations. 

Analysis of environmental progress must also consider the global dynamics and capitalist framework that allow China to begin outsourcing polluting industries to other developing nations — a practice the U.S. and Europe have engaged in for decades. As scholars Aunan, Hansen and Wang warn in their excellent introduction to Human Dimensions of Air Pollution in China, optimism about progress on air pollution in urban areas must “include more analysis of the ways in which national policies are translated into local measures that...affect people differently depending on their socio-economic status, gender, options for mobility and access to knowledge and power.”

This Earth Day it is not enough to pursue progress by tackling the surface of severe environmental issues — we must also address the consumerist lifestyles, short-term values and profit-driven frameworks that have spurred climate change and created deadly environmental problems such as air pollution. 

Now is the time to renew our commitment to transformative solutions that do more than shift the burden of pollution from one group of people to another, less powerful group of people. We must protect our planet, air and people.  

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