Orange Skies in Beijing

A spring sandstorm and worsening air pollution came to a head last week in Beijing, causing the city and surrounding area to become enveloped in an orange smog. To better understand the storm and its impact on the environment, Chinese citizens and government, the Ash Center sat down with Jesse Turiel, Ash Center China Energy Postdoctoral Fellow.

Photo of Beijing with an orange sky due to smog.

Ash Center: Prior to the sandstorm that hit Beijing and surrounding areas Monday, March 15th, the city already suffered from poor, declining air quality. What are the main contributing factors to the region’s increasing smog and what measures are being taken to combat it?

Jesse Turiel: When analyzing the factors responsible for air pollution in China, we generally consider four main sources: power generation (e.g. coal and gas-fired power plants), heavy industry, automobiles, and wind-borne dust. In the last decade, the Chinese government has taken steps to address all of these, with varying degrees of success. For example, in 2012, coal-fired power plants were banned within Beijing’s city limits. Beijing also restricts the number of cars that can be in operation on any given day. Nationally, the government has mandated a year-over-year reduction in certain pollutants under the 2013 Air Law, and currently we are seeing the rollout of a country-wide carbon pricing scheme, although adoption has been slow.

Overall, things appear to be headed in the right direction. The concentration of airborne particulate matter and other pollutants such as Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have fallen by about 30-50% across most of urban China since 2013 (the year modern data collection methods became available). Even this year’s relatively smog-filled winter was still less polluted than any year between 2013 and 2017. That being said, China still has a long way to go, and some of the more tricky air pollutants, such as ground-level Ozone (O3), are still getting worse.

How do the factors driving pollution relate to the conditions that lead to—not uncommon—dust storms in the region?

Turiel: Sandstorms in northern China are certainly nothing new. Long before humans arrived in Beijing, seasonal winds in March and April picked up sand from the Gobi desert in Mongolia and Northwest China and deposited it across the North China plain. However, over the past century, these storms have gotten worse as China developed and farmland encroached on the natural forests and grasslands which kept the desert in check. Decades of deforestation and soil erosion have also exposed more loose particles for wind to pick up, making storms more severe.

In 1978, the Chinese government attempted to reverse this trend by initiating the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Project, or “Great Green Wall.” Since then, more than 60 billion trees have been planted across a 3,000 mile stretch by thousands of volunteers. Some of the early results of the project seem promising – for example, desertification in China has slowed and even reversed since 2000. However, as last week’s events show, spring sandstorms are still a very real and significant threat.

The existing pollution combined with the massive sandstorm has caused air quality monitors to go ‘off the charts’, what are the immediate and long-term risks to regional residents?

Turiel: When we say air pollution is “off the charts,” we are usually talking about the Air Quality Index (AQI). It is a composite index of various pollutants, with lower numbers indicating better air quality. Generally speaking, an AQI below 50 indicates satisfactory air quality, an AQI above 100 indicates moderate air pollution, and an AQI from 300-500 indicates extreme air pollution. On Monday March 15th, AQI in Beijing topped out at 999, which is far beyond even the highest available category for measuring air pollution.

There are many risks from air pollution, some more obvious than others. Pollutants can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat; and they can also worsen chronic conditions such as asthma and COPD. Long-term exposure to air pollution significantly increases the risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, and a variety of other maladies. In fact, studies show that over 1 million people in China die each year from air-pollution-related issues, more than the total number of American deaths from COVID-19. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that while short-term events like last week’s sandstorm generate the biggest headlines, it is the constant background exposure to pollution over many years that causes the most serious health effects.

Photo of someone biking into smog.
Air pollution not only has short-term health implications but can do serious long-term damage to citizens’ wellbeing notes Turiel (Photo: Beijing, 2013)

You’ve researched the accuracy of air quality reports and monitoring in China and found the local monitors often underreport pollution. When it comes to issues of pollution, how trustworthy do you deem reporting coming from China?

Turiel: To make a long story short, the government-reported air quality data coming out of China is suspect, but not nearly suspect enough to disregard entirely. In China, air quality data is collected at the local level from hundreds of municipalities and then relayed hourly to the central environmental ministry, which then publishes the data online. Because local leaders can be punished or denied promotion if they fail to meet centrally-imposed air quality standards, there is an incentive for them to lie and misreport any data that makes them look bad.

My research shows that this local data manipulation still occurs in China, particularly on highly polluted days. However, recent reforms at the central level have made it much harder to cheat, and my work shows that reported air pollution levels are only about 1-2% lower than they “should” be when compared against air quality monitors operated by the U.S. embassy in China. So, observers should take Chinese air pollution data with a grain of salt, but overall, the numbers are still useful and are likely more accurate than ever before.

How do environmental issues, like poor air quality, impact Chinese citizens confidence in government?

Turiel: The survey work I have conducted with my colleagues at the Ash Center shows that the average Chinese citizen cares a great deal about environmental issues, with levels of concern equaling or even exceeding those in the United States. Among environmental issues, air pollution is most frequently named as the most serious, followed by water pollution and food safety.

Notably, my research shows that when actual, measured air pollution is high, citizen’s perceptions of local air quality is more likely to be negative. This means that Chinese perceptions of air pollution are shaped – at least to some degree – by reality, and aren’t simply due to information consumption or political factors. Furthermore, people who perceive local air quality as poor are more likely to rate their local government poorly in its handling of environmental issues. This suggests that most Chinese citizens view air pollution as a human-induced problem rather than a random act of nature or the inevitable price of progress, and they tend to blame the government it.

Your research has shown that though citizens are able to assess the impact of local air pollution and it impacts their perception of local governance, changes in air quality does not impact their willingness to participate in environmental protests. Why is that?

Turiel: Yes, it appears that, by itself, dissatisfaction over air pollution issues is not enough to induce Chinese citizens to take resistive action. There are a few likely explanations for this. The first is obvious – street protests are still illegal in China and prospective participants may fear political retribution. However, even when it comes to legally-sanctioned forms of protest, such as China’s complaints and petitions system, the link between dissatisfaction and action appears tenuous. Apart from political fear, some Chinese citizens are wary of cracking down on highly-polluting industries in their home towns, which often supply jobs and/or economic security for large numbers of residents.

When looking at the data, the two strongest determinants of willingness to protest are internet use and perceived negative health impacts of air pollution (in this survey question, we ask respondents if air pollution has caused health issues for themselves or an immediate family member). Thus, when citizens have more access to information and when they perceive a direct personal stake in the matter, they are more likely to take action.

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