Two new short films on air pollution in China + an overview of the topic

(Air pollution in Ningbo, 2013. Credit: 显 龙, license, no changes made)

In the past week 2 worthwhile short films worth seeing on air pollution in China have been released.

The first short film is by Michael Zhao and is titled ‘China’s Air Pollution: The Tipping point. It provides a good and objective overall snapshot of the issue, and includes some illuminating side-by-side photos of cities in China, which clearly show what air pollution in China is like. The film is on and can be viewed here:

The second short film is by award winning director Jia Zhangke. It is titled ‘Smog journeys: A short film about air pollution in China’. It is, of course, more artistic than the first film, and it does an impressive job of portraying the feeling and vibe of living in Chinese cities affected by air pollution. The film also effectively portrays how everyday life goes on, despite the rather surreal smog (from the foreign perspective) being an eye-catching and pervasive presence that can blanket areas across China from time to time. The film can be viewed on The Guardian website here:

An Overview of Air Pollution in China

(Map of air pollution in China. Image and data originally from Canadian researchers Aaron van Donkelaar and Randall Martin at Dalhousie University)

China’s, and particularly Beijing’s, air pollution has become quite well known, especially after the ‘airpocalyse’ or ‘airmageddon’ period (as social media quickly dubbed it) of considerably bad air pollution in January 2013. During this period the United States Embassy in Beijing posted one day that the Air Quality Index (AQI) stood at 755, exceeding the conventional measuring limit of 500 (the US Environmental Protection Agency considers AQIs over 300 ‘hazardous’) 1. The US Embassy Twitter account ( that reports Beijing’s AQI infamously described AQI in Beijing that exceeded 500 a few years ago as ‘crazy bad’, so new terminology was required during January 2013, and social media obliged with the term ‘airpocalyse’, as ‘flights were cancelled. Roads were closed. One hospital in east Beijing reported treating more than 900 children for respiratory issues’ and Bloomberg ‘found that for most of January, Beijing’s air was worse than that of an airport smoking lounge’ 2.

Responses in China to the air pollution have differed between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. The government’s reaction has firstly been to tell other governments and their embassies off for releasing AQI information about cities in China, and to accuse them of violating international conventions and Chinese law, with the vice minister for environmental protection Wu Xiaoqing saying in June 2012 ‘we hope the few consulates in China would respect our country’s relevant laws and regulations, and stop publishing this unrepresentative air-quality information’. Mr Wu also said that industrialised countries like the US have tougher standards for measuring air pollution than China, and that such standards for measuring air quality may not be fitting for a developing country like China 3.

And it is the case that measuring techniques and standards have differed between China and other countries, such as the US, and other organisations. China does not report when AQI numbers exceed 500 1. Also, Chinese officials prefer to release information about air pollution that refers to levels of PM 10, and that doesn’t refer to PM 2.5, which foreign health and environmental experts say can be more deadlier and is more important to track (PM stands for ‘particulate matter’, and refers to tiny particles of solid matter that can be composed of substances such as soot, chemicals, metals, soil and dust. 2.5 refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, making them small enough to enter the human body and bypass its natural defences. PM 2.5 is linked with heart disease, heart attacks, altered lung function and lung cancer) 1 4 5. Beijing and other cities have long had the equipment to measure PM 2.5, but have chosen not to incorporate PM 2.5 data into their air quality ratings 6. An additional point is that the US Embassy releases AQI data hourly, whereas the Chinese government releases its AQI data daily 7.

The reaction of the public in China has instead been to demand that more information about air quality and pollution get released, a demand which has in part been fuelled by the US Embassy’s Twitter feed (that gets reposted widely around unblocked Chinese websites) 1 8. As Yale University doctoral candidate Angel Hsu stated: ‘PM 2.5 and data measurement issues with regard to air quality have entered into mainstream Chinese life’. This is seen with the term ‘PM 2.5’ seeing a massive increase in usage on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social media website, as the term was only used 200 times in January 2011, whereas the term was mentioned over 3 million times in January 2013 (during ‘airpocalyse’) 2. Sales of face masks in recent years have skyrocketed with Chinese citizens spending many millions on them annually. Shanghai even considered in early 2014 providing 23 million masks to city residents 9.

With the air pollution becoming apart of mainstream life in many Chinese cities, humour and satire has become a commonplace way for Chinese people to live with the air in their cities. Beijing is routinely joked to be the ‘Capital of Smog’ 10. A widely shared joke online is that recalls Xi Jinping’s statement: ‘Make socialist core values as pervasive as the air’, with Chinese responding ‘also as toxic?’ While a student at Peking University in Beijing acted to ensure that university statues display the correct response to the air in Beijing, and a Chinese netizen edited a photo for the good of the Great Helmsman:

Statue at Peking University. Photo originally from Weibo

originally from Weibo

The Australian connection

According to the EIA, China accounts for almost half of the world’s coal consumption, so unsurprisingly China is a big importer of goal. Also according to the EIA ‘Indonesia and Australia are the largest coal exporters to China, supplying more than 60% of China’s imports in 2012’. And because the burning of coal is a main cause of China’s air pollution, Australia is right in the thick of the smog story.

China’s air pollution is a classic bind that China finds itself in as it rushes towards modernity. The country needs to modernise and to provide suitable energy to it’s people, and often coal has been the most feasible source of energy, yet the burning of coal creates externalities (that is, negative side effects), namely smog.

Australia could play a much more constructive role with regards to China’s air pollution. Australia has very high environmental standards, with Melbourne, for instance, normally having an AQI below 50. Melbourne has won C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership awards in 2013 and 2014 11 12. So there is ample room for possible technology transfer between Australia and China with regards to tackling pollution and environmental issues. Also, with great irony, some have suggested that China’s need to combat air pollution could give Australia’s ailing coal industry a significant boost. As China will not stop using coal, and will rather upgrade programs and try to find more efficient and effective coal-fired energy solutions, China’s new demand for coal could especially align with Australia’s coal supply 13. This is because China is expected to raise quality targets with regards to imported coal, which would spell trouble for producers with low quality coal, such as Indonesia (who’s coal industry has profited in recent years due to the short distances and low costs to export to China), whereas ‘some of Australia’s coal [has] twice the amount of energy compared to Indonesia’, in the words of mining industry expert Mike Elliot. This is because China would want as much energy per tonne of coal as possible, to have more efficient coal-fired power plants that would produce a lot more energy with the same amount of coal. Hence Australia might be ideally placed to supply China with somewhat more expensive coal that can play a role in reducing China’s air pollution 14.

At the very least Australia should start helping in some meaningful way to help China kick its dirty habit.

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