The Chinese Pollution Problem and the Politics of "Airpocalypse"

By Vikrant Bhatnagar
2014, Vol. 6 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

In 1992 during his famed Southern Trip, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of the Communist Party of China, proclaimed that "To Get Rich Is Glorious1." This slogan ignited the economic revolution in China. It is through this very notion of economic productivity and the search for wealth that China also adopted another motto – growth at all costs. Two decades later, China is no longer the third world country that Deng Xiaoping lived in, but an economic powerhouse that has turned a blind eye towards its environment. Whether you look outward towards the water, or inward towards the land, or upward towards the air, pollution and environmental degradation plague all Chinese citizens.

Further, according to a report by The World Bank, “China’s water resources are scarce and unevenly distributed,”2 an issue that is magnified by pollution found in the waterways. In addition, the World Bank reports that the “Per capita availability… estimated at 2,156 m3/year in 2007—is only one-fourth of the world average of 8,549 m3/year and among the lowest for a major country.”3 Recent controversies, such as the 100,000 kilograms of poisoned fish found dead in a river from ammonia poisoning,4 or the “nearly 20 million people in China liv[ing] in areas at high risk of arsenic contamination in their water supplies,”5 suggest the increasing severity of water pollution in China.

Water pollution is not the only problem, as increases in economic productivity and urban population have led to a hike in energy demand. China currently has 620 operating coal power plants to generate electricity, and according to The New York Times, China and India are building 4 new coal power plants per week6. At this astonishing rate “by 2020, coal consumption in China is projected to increase by 30 percent, and already, 20 percent of water withdrawn in the country goes to coal mining, processing, and cooling of coal-fired power plants”7.

Air Pollution in China

Air quality in China is plagued by inefficient coal-fired power plants, the growing use of vehicles with low emissions standards, and a corrupt political system that fails to incentivize environmental protection. Photo: High Contrast.

Environmental degradation has a multiplier effect, as trees are being cut down to support coal mining which in tandem with vital water resources are going towards these coal-powered energy plants. “China reports forest coverage of 18.2 percent, well below the U.S. coverage of 33.1 percent and the world average of 30.3 percent”8. Furthermore, when coal is burned to produce energy, many of these power plants lack the bare essentials such as filters to contain hazardous gases and pollutants from going into the air. These pollutants are spewed up in the air, and as the saying goes, ‘what must go up, must come back down:’ Particulate matter from coal will precipitate and eventually reach the waterways, and further pollute the water in China. The cycle of pollution is never ending, especially if the rules to protect the environment lack teeth and those enforcing the rules choose to look the other way, when they should be penalizing offenders.

Air Pollution

Air pollution in China is not a recent phenomenon. Images of foggy, hazy air pollution come to mind when we think of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In the northern city of Harbin, heavily reliant on coal-fired heat, the pollution from these large coal boilers was so terrible in October that people could not see 10 meters in front of them.9

Air pollution in China is caused by a few but is felt by all. In a forum in Beijing on April 1, 2013, the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study in conjunction with the Health Effects Institute presented the grim statistic that air pollution in China is linked to 1.2 million premature deaths.10 Put another way, the study reported that outdoor air pollution, which is caused primarily by “particulate matter pollution,” led to the loss of “25 million healthy years of life from the population.”11 This report added another strike against China’s air pollution as cities across China during this period were experiencing air pollution at unprecedented levels.

The severity of the particulate matter in the air has made citizens question what the government is doing to protect them from hazardous air. If China continues at this pace, the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study and the Health Effects Institute report stated that by 2050 approximately “3.6 million people could end up dying prematurely from air pollution each year.”12 Particulate matter less than 2.5 microns or PM 2.5, small enough to go deep into the lungs and embed itself in the interior linings of the lungs, has been found to cause a variety of lung diseases.13 On a standardized air pollution index, the World Health Organization deemed “20 as a healthy level” when measuring the level of PM2.5 particles in the air:14 yet during the months of January and February in 2013, “in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, the average reading over [that period was] 393,” and for nearly a week, the PM 2.5 index meter read 500, which is as high as the index can go.15

Blame it on Coal

So where is all of this air pollution coming from? As previously mentioned, coal is used to produce energy and heat with “coal-fired power stations account[ing] for more than 70 per cent of China’s energy production.”16 The China Environmental Forum, an undertaking of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, indicated that China is expected to double its energy consumption from coal by 2020.17 A recent report from the World Resources Institute said that, “China now has 363 coal plants slated for construction, which will increase the country's coal-fired generating capacity by nearly 75 percent.”18 These reports establish that China’s dependence on coal will increase in the near future and with substantial increases in coal-fueled power plants, we can see a glimpse of China’s bleak future.

Many of these new coal-fired energy plants have “state-of-the-art SO2 scrubbers installed, [but] in a bid to cut costs they typically do not operate the equipment.”19 According to a Greenpeace report, “pollution from new coal-fired plants planned in China's Guangdong province would cause 16,000 premature deaths in the province and adjacent Hong Kong over the next 40 years.”20 Guangdong is China’s biggest coal importer with the province having 96 coal-fueled power plants, 11 new power plants under construction, and another 11 awaiting approval.21 The effects of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns are so pervasive that “3,600 premature deaths as well as 4,000 cases of asthma in children”22 were detected during 2011.

Many More Vehicles

If that is not bad enough, in 2012, approximately 20 million cars were sold in China, making China the world leader in car sales.23 Many of these newer cars are more efficient and have lower emissions, but the fuel used to power them is blended with a high content of sulfur, rendering automobiles as a huge source of air pollution. According to Sinopec, one of the behemoths of China’s oil industry, “Chinese gasoline contains 15 times the amount of sulfur found in European countries.”24 In Beijing, transportation vehicles account for the largest proportion of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions.25 Former vice mayor of Beijing Hong Feng noted that “vehicles account for 22 percent of PM2.5”26 in Beijing.

China is making some strides towards tackling its fuel problem. By implementing a stricter emissions standard and increasing the refinement of the gasoline used by vehicles, a reduction in “particulate matter by 80% and NOx [Nitric Oxide] by 30%”27 can be expected. The International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent non-profit organization, has analyzed fuel standards across many nations including China, India, and the European Union, and found that fuel with low sulfur content can correlate to advancing vehicle emissions standards.28

For the Olympics Games in Beijing in 2008, both Beijing and Shanghai adopted higher vehicle emissions standards in the form of China IV, which is analogous to the “EURO IV standards used in Europe.”30 The China IV standards were expected to be applied nationwide by 2010.31 The transition from China III to China IV fuel standard reduced the sulfur content from 350 parts per million to 50 parts per million in China IV. In the past, higher fuel and emissions standards “cut China’s SO2 emissions from automobiles by almost 2,500 tons in less than three years.”32 This past year also saw the passing of the China V standard, an improvement of the China IV, which would reduce the sulfur content from 50 parts per million (China IV) to 10 parts per million (China V).33 The China V standard has only been implemented in Beijing so far.34 In other cities and regions, the national fuel and emission standards are still far inferior from the major upgrades China IV and V provide.

Table 1: Chinese Vehicle Emission Standards29

Fuel Standard

Sulfur ppm (parts per million)

China III


China IV


China V


China assured more stringent fuel standards for diesel by adopting the China IV standards for “new busses and trucks by January 2011, but has twice delayed issuing the standards, most recently to July 2013, claiming that higher-quality fuel is not yet widely available,”35 an issue that falls squarely on the lap of the three main Chinese oil companies – Sinopec, China National Offshore Oil & China National Petroleum Corporation – who need to accelerate the production of higher quality fuel. The state-owned oil companies claimed that this would cost them an additional “50 billion yuan ($7.58b),”36 a cost that is sure to be passed on to the consumer. To compound this issue, on August 31, 2013, Chinese oil giants – China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec – failed environmental inspections as they were unable to “pass emission reduction goals for 2012” for the two airborne pollutants “sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides,”37 two pollutants that are effective barometers of measuring the implementation of higher emissions standards. Vehicle emissions are further increased as inefficient public transportation systems such as subway and busing systems are overcrowded and cause frustration amongst citizens, who then in return choose to drive their motor vehicles.38

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