Air Pollution in China

By Lauren Stelzer

What is air pollution?

According to The World Health Organisation, "Air pollution is the contamination of indoor or outdoor environments by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere." Air pollution is measured by micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) or parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). Air monitoring data can be used to measure air quality and determines the extent of the problems that air pollution causes.

Extent of air pollution in China today

  • Particulate Matter (a mixture of solid particles and liquid drops in the air) has increased from 400 micrograms per cubic meter in 2001 for 700 mg in 2013
  • In 2013, PM2.5 level registered 1000 in the city of Harbin. This was 40 times WHO's recommendation
  • During 1981–2001 the average level of particulate matter in North China was 55% higher than in South China because of the North’s greater dependence on coal
  • 90% of Chinese cities fail to meet the Chinese government's air pollution standards.
  • China has 20 out of the 30 most polluted cities in the world.
  • China is responsible for 1/3 of the planet's greenhouse gas output.
  • A report released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in November 2010 showed that about one-third of 113 cities failed to meet national air standards.
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Natural causes of air pollution in China

Air pollution can be generated by natural occurrences. Volcanic eruptions produce ash clouds and toxic gases which affect the breathable particles in the air. Sulphur dioxide is also released, effecting skin and tissue, respiratory tracts and bronchials. Additionally, aerosol particles brought on from volcanic eruptions and desert winds, reach the atmosphere and alter the temperature and weather patterns of near by areas.

Decaying vegetation can also cause acid rain resulting in the depletion of a variety of flora and fauna. The pH level in rivers and streams alters, causing a change in aluminium levels and affecting the life and growth of aquatic animals, which in turn harms human food.

Human causes of air pollution in China

China's air pollution is significantly affected by human intervention. A rapid increase in China's population has lead to greater productivity. Lack of government control has meant that many factories and companies are producing green house gases.

An increased migration of Chinese people into cities and changing transport needs has also affected air pollution. As prices of oil and electricity have risen, Chinese industrial plants chose to turn to cheaper, more environmentally harmful coal. Additionally, many consumer products are made in China causing large emissions of carbon due to the number of factories required to produce world trading goods.

Health risks associated with air pollution in China

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The extent to which air pollution in China is affecting the World's weather

The air pollution in China is affecting the world's climate and weather patterns producing an increase in cloud formation and storm intensity particularly over the Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere. China's air pollution travels to the rest of the world through the' Jet Stream'- a band of very strong wind around 11 kilometres above the earth that circulates around the northern or southern hemispheres. There is a great deal of evidence that the North and South poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. When jet streams are warmer, their ups and downs are more extreme and bring different types of weather to areas.

Researchers have conducted studies which conclude that high pollution rates result in thicker and taller clouds with heavier precipitation. The effect is more prevalent during winter. Particles from air pollution in China collect moisture within clouds. These particles are small and numerous; however, they don't get heavy enough to fall as rain or snow.

Aerosols, which are small particles drifting into the air, can be man-made or natural. Large amounts of aerosols from China go as high up as six miles. The increase in pollution makes water condense on to aerosols in storms. When condensation takes place, energy is released in the form of heat. which adds to the up and down air flows within a cloud.

Air pollution in China is increasing the intensity and occurrence of storms and cyclones. These are formed by low pressure systems and in the particular case of a cyclone, an intense low pressure system. According to the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" paper published in April 14, 2014 North-west Pacific winter storms are now 10% stronger than they were thirty years ago.

NASA Animation Shows Asian Air Pollution Moving Across the Globe

Prevention and control of air pollution in China

  • Introduce cleaner fuel standards and switch to electric vehicles
  • Restrict the construction of power plants and other energy-intensive industries
  • Improve urban planning and increase green spaces while encouraging public participation to improve air quality
  • Cap regional coal consumption and shut down inefficient coal-fired industrial boilers
  • Increase pollution charges and strengthen supervision
  • Increase supply of clean energy Eg. By 2017 consumption of coal will fall below 65% of total energy consumption
  • Establish monitoring, early warning and emergency response systems to meet the challenge of heavy air pollution

Based on the Implementation of the Ministry of Environmental Protection Action Plan (12/09/2013)