By Julian Wong Jan.15.2013
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"Beyond Index" - Can 'Airpocalypse' be China's 'Silent Spring'?

News over the past five days in many parts of northern China have centered around the unprecedented air pollution shrouding several northern cities, including the capital.  The “Airpocalypse,” so dubbed by micro-bloggers, has elicited a strong, unambiguous response frot the public and the media – causing many to call a spade a spade by casting away euphemisms like fog in favor of more candid descriptors like smog and pollution.  It has also inspired this poignant music video lamenting the lost of Beijing to the evil forces of pollution:


It all started on or around January 10th, with report that a number of cities in the north were afflicted with almost historic levels of air pollution.  A sampling of Air Pollution Index (API) readings (on a scale of 0-500) on that day: 
•    Shijiazhuang (Hebei province): 437, severely polluted
•    Beijing: 419, severely polluted
•    Handan (Hebei): 310, severely polluted
•    Baoding (Hebei): 268, heavily polluted
•    Hefei (Anhui):  270, heavily polluted

Then by the weekend, the air pollution, particularly (pardon the pun) shot off the charts, literally.  Reports AP:

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center said on its website that the density of PM2.5 particulates [i.e. fine particulate matter] had surpassed 700 micrograms per cubic meter in many parts of the city. The World Health Organization considers a safe daily level to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter…


The U.S. Embassy also publishes data for PM2.5 on Twitter and interprets the data according to more stringent standards [AQI or Air Quailty Index, but also on scale of 0-500].


In the 24-hour period up to 10 a.m. Sunday, it said 18 of the hourly readings were “beyond index.” The highest number was 755, which corresponded to a PM2.5 density of 886 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index goes up to only 500, and the agency advises that anything greater than 300 would trigger a health warning of “emergency conditions,” with the entire population likely affected.

In case you are still a doubter, a number of news outlets featured dystopic pictorials of the heavy smog: Xinhua, People’s Daily and NPR

Broader Political Significance?

Perhaps just as remarkable as the off-the-chart air pollution readings was the reaction of the state-controlled media – completely frank and unabashed.  Ed Wong’s NY Time’s article provides an excellent summary of the reactions of some party-controlled propaganda papers, citing hypercrtical editorials by People’s Daily, Global Times (English; Chinese) and China Youth Daily.  This has prompted the seasoned China watcher and prolific editor of the Sinocism newsletter, Bill Bishop, to observe:

Media coverage of the crisis is remarkable. Clearly it is impossible to pretend that the air is not polluted or that the health risks are not significant, so are the propaganda authorities just recognizing reality in allowing coverage? Or is there something more going on here, as perhaps the new government wants to both demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability as well as use this crisis to further the difficult reforms towards a more sustainable development model?

A screenshot of air quality readings captured by a blogger on Jan 12

Could this be China’s version of Silent Spring?  Indeed, Premier-elect Li Keqiang promised decisive central government action.  Another emerging theme from the fall out of Airpocalypse also appears to be the concept of “resposible media” and the obligations of news outlets to pursue the truth, as this editorial in China Youth Daily urges.

A Worrying Health Trend

A Peking University/Greenpeace study released late last year reports that air pollution was linked to at least 8,572 premature deaths across four major Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an) in 2012 alone. (Yet, one expatriate doctor living in Beijing provocatively contends that even at an API of 500, the PM2.5 particulates that one would inhale would be roughly equivalent to smoking just three-quarters of a cigarette.)

The harm is not contained to these four major cities.  A joint Asia Development Bank and Tsinghua University report released just yesterday scale in infrastructure.  Apparently, nature has its breaking point.  (Speaking of nature, this article in Nature makes the same point.)

Who Did It?

Vance Wagner’s Live from Beijing blog takes a stab at summarizing the main culprits of the Airpocalypse:

 1) Direct pollutant emissions from factories, vehicles, power plants, etc. across all of Northern China. Beijing has made a lot of progress in recent years in controlling emissions within the city’s municipal boundaries, but the truth is pollution is regional. Whatever happens in all the major provinces around Beijing – Tianjin, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, etc., will effect Beijing. These provinces are developing rapidly – more factories, more power plants, more cars, more coal burning – and it’s making Beijing’s efforts to clean up all that much more difficult…


2) Secondary pollution. The atmosphere is quite the chemical soup. While direct emissions matter, a lot of air pollution is secondary, meaning that it is caused by directly emitted pollutants interacting with each other in the atmosphere, giving rise to new forms of “secondary” pollution. Much PM2.5 is this secondary pollution. Of course, the longer pollutants are allowed to interact with each other, the crazier and more extreme the secondary pollution will become…


3) Weather. Anyone who has lived in Beijing knows that the primary factor influencing a blue sky day vs. a pea soup sky day is the wind. If there are a few consecutive days where the winds are stagnant – or blowing lightly from the south and trapping pollution against the mountains in northern and northwestern Beijing – the pollution is going to accumulate rapidly. Throw in some increases in direct pollutant emissions from the cold weather, and the chemical soup starts really brewing. The result? Spikes in temporary pollution, in this case all the way above 800 [in PM2.5 readings]…

This piece in ChinaDialogue identifies similar sources of air pollution.

What Needs to Be Done?

A qualitative understanding of the sources of air pollution only goes so far in, prominent environmental crusader Ma Jun would argue. In his view, hard numbers are better.  In a recent article, he prescribes a three-step approach in tackling China’s air quality challenges:

[Th]he first step is to expand access to air-quality data – making pollution statistics more comprehensive, faster and more consumer-friendly. The second is to give the public appropriate health warnings, both to reduce the impact on health and to motivate people to get involved in cutting pollution. And the third is to identify sources of pollution and come up with targeted and timetabled plans to cut that pollution.

On the first step, he cites progress like the announcement earlier this month that 74 cities are now required to release real-time data of PM2.5 levels.

Now, we are reading that the Ministry of Environmental Protection has just released a circular 《关于进一步做好重污染天气条件下空气质量监测警工作的通知》that urges local authorities to timely publicize air pollution trends in the mass media.  The circular also directs its gaze at the local governments of three mega-city regions – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta region and the Pearl River Delta region, recognizing, as discussed above, that the air quality in these regions are especially vulnerable.

On the second step, Ma Jun identifies several mechanisms, including a Shanghai Air Quality mobile app (probably not unlike the app portrayed by the screenshot above), which allows citizens to access air quality data at the tip of their fingers.  Of course, it was Ma Jun himself (and his oganization the Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs) who started it all with the China Air Pollution Map. I would add that the Beijing American Embassy air quality twitter feed (@beijingair) and Michael Zhao’s elegant but powerful air pollution visualization website China Air Daily as valuable contributors to the information and warning ecosystem.

Needless to say, on the third step, the challenge of addressing these causes are complex and enormous.  For a thorough discussion of how to address mobile sources of air pollution, Mr. Wagner, also a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, has this to offer.

You Win Some You Lose Some

Boom time for mask makers (source: Shanghai Daily)

But not everyone is a loser in Airpocalypse – if you manufacture air purifiers or face masks, you are probably doing nicely for now.  The stock prices of public listed environmental companies also benefited from the otherwise bad news.  Some also think that this episode might serve to reignite, at least in China, early stage private equity investment interest in what has otherwise been moribund clean energy and environmental sectors.

Anora Wang contributed research to this post.

Comments (1)

  1. Ed Jan.16.2013@1:47 am Reply

    Amazed that nobody mentions Xi’an at all. The AQI was 802 here on Monday.

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