WASHINGTON – After decades of denials, at least the Chinese authorities now recognize that they have a huge environmental problem that in some regions and large cities has reached catastrophic proportions. 30 years of wild industrial growth, with practically zero environmental safeguards, have created a nightmare. No doubt the Chinese economy has grown, incredibly so.
But the rapid rate of growth was at least in part accelerated by no spending on pollution control. The outcome of this unchecked race to increase output is a semi-devastated country. Chinese cities, especially in the North East, have extremely poor air quality. The amounts of pollutants in the air routinely exceed what the World Health Organization considers to be the maximum allowable.
Well, at last the Chinese Government has taken notice. And it has launched programs aimed at curbing emissions. This is good. However, according to Chinese experts, the publicly announced goals cannot be met within the time frame announced by the government. Translation: “This is a much bigger problem than we want to acknowledge.”
Here is how the Chinese publication Caixin describes the issue in a piece titled “Researchers Cast Doubt on State Council Goals to Cut Air Pollution”, published on October 21, 2014:
“(Beijing) – Just after China celebrated its week-long National Day holiday at the start of October, heavy haze again hit the capital. City authorities released the yellow warning after smog shrouded the capital city starting on October 8. The next day, the alarm was raised to orange, the second most serious warning.
Heavy haze covered the city for at least 75 hours, official figures show, the most serious air pollution in the second half this year so far.
It has been more than a year since the State Council, the country’s cabinet, approved a plan to fight air pollution in September last year. The plan, which contains measures in 10 major areas, was seen as the country’s strongest-ever effort to fight air pollution. It set targets to improve air quality in major regions around the country within five years.
The plan says that by 2017, the overall level of PM2.5, small particles in the air that can cause lung disease, should be cut by 10 percent. In the Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province region that is hit the hardest by pollution, the level should fall by 25 percent. The annual PM2.5 density in Beijing is to be under 60 micrograms per cubic meter.
Official figures show that the capital’s average PM2.5 density in 2013 was 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter.
The 2013 plan declared an ambitious war against the country’s worsening air quality. However, recent research says that China is likely to fail to meet most of its targets by 2017.”
“On September 25, Tsinghua University and the Clean Air Alliance of China, an air quality research group, published an evaluation of the policies proposed in the 2013 plan.
He Kebin, the director of the School of Environment at Tsinghua University and the leader of the research, said that “if the measures are fully implemented, it would effectively improve the air quality in the Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei region.”
But He and his team concluded that even if all the measures are put into practice, PM2.5 levels would fall by 25.6 percent in Beijing, 18.7 percent in Tianjin and 14.7 percent in Hebei by 2017. That means that both the province surrounding Beijing and the eastern port city will fall short of the government’s targets. [bold added]
Even in Beijing, which is expected to meet its target, the annual average PM2.5 density will only decrease to 65.8 micrograms per cubic meter.
He said his team is confident in their conclusions. According to He, the research used a methodology called community multi-scale air quality that was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The methodology focuses on studies on the troposphere, the Earth’s lowest level of atmosphere; acid levels; visibility; particulate matter; and other pollutants.
To test the accuracy of the method, He’s team calculated the air quality data for 2013 based on the model and the results were very close to the actual figures for that year”.
“The researchers suggested ways to improve air pollution reduction efforts. The report stated that current policies have effectively controlled emission of sulfur dioxide, but have ignored the pollution from nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ammonia.
To meet the 2017 targets, the region of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei should pay more attention to controlling nitrogen oxides and VOCs in order to prevent the formation of particulate matter such as PM2.5, the report said.
He’s team proposed 10 measures to reduce coal use in various industries and cut chemical industry emissions and pollution from the agricultural industry.
Earlier this year, He and his team released preliminary research results and got the attention of many local officials. According to He, some local officials who are eagerly to meet the central government’s order on pollution cuts have resorted to stricter measures to improve air quality.
Provincial officials from Hebei visited the research team at Tsinghua University to get advice on pollution control, He said.
They wanted) to make sure that they can meet the 2017 targets,” said He, adding the officials asked for help to work out a more effective pollution plan.
But He’s measures could pose implementation challenges for local authorities.
For instance, VOCs are a major source of secondary aerosols that create particulate matter, and their control is an important part of cutting air pollution. Strict policies to restrict emissions from the coking industry, coating material production and other areas would see VOC emissions fall by as much as 40 percent in Tianjin and Hebei.
However, the current industry policies will only see levels reduced by about 5 percent.
Meanwhile, the widespread use of fertilizer in agriculture and the growing livestock breeding industry are the main sources of ammonia pollution around Chinese cities. The colorless gas with a pungent smell comes from poultry waste and auto engines, and is an important factor for forming the particulate matter.
Despite government orders to curb dangerous emissions from coal-burning power plants, steel factories, construction-site dust, cars and other well-known sources of air pollution, ammonia has been left off the official list of targeted pollutants, even though it is an increasingly serious component of smog.
China has been spewing more ammonia than any other country for the past two decades, but studies on output of the chemical have been inadequate. Researchers believe most of the country’s ammonia pollution comes from farms where nitrogen fertilizer is spread on fields, or from the animal waste that piles up at poultry and livestock facilities. [bold added]
He’s team called for increasing the concentration of the livestock breeding industry in order to better control ammonia emissions, but in reality that will be hard to achieve, He said”.