Skip to content

China’s air pollution crisis

A case study in health hazards, energy policy and the environment

It has been five years since the overwhelming haze frequently covering China’s major cities, such as Beijing began to be taken seriously by The Ministry of Environmental Protection. Today, the true blue colour of a clear sky may become a myth to children born in the capital city Beijing if the situation continues to worsen. Their reality could be wearing gas masks to avoid inhaling the dense and polluted air which on some days they will not be able to see past a couple hundred metres. This is already the case during red alert periods, when factories are shut down and airports are closed. However, the truth it contains sets a precedent of widespread environmental damage and health hazards that we must strive to face head-on now, and ultimately work to avoid in the future.

The air pollution looming over the heads of the 1.35 billion people of China contains particulate matter (P.M.) at 2.5 micrometers, which is a diameter size small enough that enables being absorbed by the lungs and into the bloodstream. The most common sources of P.M. 2.5 are coal combustion, vehicle exhaust, and general burning of wood materials. These particles are more likely to congregate in areas where there is low surface wind speed, something China is particularly prone to. The highest amounts of smog are present during the winter, as more and more coal is combusted to heat people’s homes. In 2008, before Chinese officials had publicly acknowledged the dangers of the air pollution, the U.S. Embassy in China started measuring the air quality index and posting the results on their Twitter account.

Their measurements were generally way above expectations (51-100 being considered ‘good’), leading to a public outcry and pressure on Chinese officials. Knowing very well that this could not be swept under the rug any further, the Chinese government introduced legislation to begin taking measurements all around the country in its Five Year Plans, from just a few major cities in 2013 to almost every city in 2015. Previously, out of the ten most polluted cities in the world, seven are found in China, according to an analysis published by Tsinghua University and the Asian Development Bank in 2013. To date, cities in India such as New Dehli, and Saudi Arabia, have overtaken Beijing as the top most polluted cities in the world, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report from 2016.

To understand the severity of the air pollution during winter in China, we must compare concentration of P.M. 2.5 (in micrograms per cubic meter area) to see just how stark the difference is between North American and Chinese cities. In 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing measured a reading of over 500 micrograms, and strongly advised U.S. citizens abroad to stay indoors, while Chinese authorities remained nonchalant. By January 2013, the average daily P.M. concentration in Beijing was over 300, and measurements up to 700 and 755 were taken on different occasions. In October 2013, a record shattering measurement of 1000 was taken in the city of Harbin, forty times the amount the WHO deems safe. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, the average concentration of New York City P.M. 2.5 hovers around 10 micrograms, with relatively extreme days reaching 15. To put it into perspective how it feels to breathe this much densely polluted air, a study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested the P.M. 2.5 level of the average airport smoking lounge, which they finalized to be around 166.5 micrograms per cubic meter, making the Beijing average twice as hazardous to inhale in comparison (without taking into account other carcinogens). The air is becoming so polluted that clean mountain air from Alberta is currently being sold to China, and is reported to be selling out during red alert periods.

The amount of pollution currently over China’s skies is unparalleled today, yet it is difficult to actually blame them for their current disposition. While China is the world’s number one leader in total greenhouse gas emissions and coal combustion, it is not even in the top five for emissions per capita. An analysis from the World Resources Institute in 2014 finds that not only do Canada and the United States occupy the first two positions for top emissions per capita, China ranks in the seventh slot, barely above the world average. China has to endure obscene levels of air pollution because of their total pollution and population density, which are much higher than those of the United States and Canada. Many countries’ dependence on China for cheap exports, manufacturing and labour also prevent them from making policy changes too quickly, as economic development is still rising in many parts of the country. While China can be used as a case study for the consequences of lowered standards of living brought by high air, water and soil pollution, it is by no means a country which we should demonize as they are non-arguably becoming a world leader in clean energy transitioning, means of production and investing.


General short-term symptoms of exposure to high levels of P.M. 2.5 include shortness of breath, irritated eyes and lungs, sneezing, coughing, and it can worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. However, this pales in comparison to what we now know about the risks and effects of long-term exposure. Long-term exposure has been documented to account for much higher rates of chronic bronchitis, lung disease, heart and lung cancer. A new study published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology led by Chinese researchers has also identified much higher rates of damage and disorders of the kidneys which correlated with higher particulate matter in urban areas. One particular disease, membranous nephropathy, which includes symptoms such as inflamed blood vessels in the kidney and can often lead to kidney failure, has doubled in frequency over the past ten years in China per capita, following rising trends in air pollution levels.

A 2016 study published by the American Heart Association compared data between the United States and China looking at the number of strokes per year compared to particulate matter in the atmosphere. They came to the conclusion that the number of strokes per capita rises 11.9 per cent for every 100 micrograms of particulate matter in the air. In 2013, an eight-year-old girl in Nanjing was diagnosed with lung cancer, the youngest age ever recorded in China. The doctors were deeply troubled with the diagnosis, as most cases of lung cancer are caused by cigarette smoking. Even more worrisome, is the finding that in China, twenty to fourty year olds are the fastest growing group of cancer patients, cases that are less easily related to cigarette smoking. Long-term exposure to P.M. 2.5 particles not only increases the rate of lung cancer from the airborne carcinogens they contain, but also increases the risk of mortality.

We cannot yet know the full extent of how many more people will be affected by diseases from air pollution in the future, but we do know approximately how many are dying each year from it. The WHO has detailed data about deaths directly related to P.M. 2.5 in each country per year, and China leads at one million people per year dying from air pollution, followed by 600,000 per year in India. Another study from University California Berkeley in 2015 estimated 1.6 million deaths in China every year, with 4,000 deaths every day from diseases related to and caused by high air pollution. In general, air pollution lowers life expectancy significantly according to a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published in 2013, providing an estimate that every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy by three years at birth, effectively shortening life span by nine years for those born in area with an average of 300 micrograms such as Beijing.

Pregnancy can also be affected by severe air pollution. As the fine particles from the air are absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream, and are shared with the fetus through the placenta. David Rich et al., from the University of Rochester Medical Center published a study in 2015, where they compared birth weight between babies born during the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008 and those born before and after. The reasoning for the comparison is that China undertook many policies to reduce carbon emissions in the weeks leading to the Olympic Games in order to clean up the air, such as shutting down factories, stopping construction, seeding clouds to increase rainfall by firing silver iodide rockets into the sky, and restricting traffic. The results suggest that babies born in 2008 during that time were on average 24 grams heavier than babies born in 2007 and 2009. The final stages of pregnancy are incredibly important to the development of the baby, and these results suggest that air pollution may impede fetal growth, nutrient delivery and alter placental function. Air pollution also increases the risk of babies being born with asthma, as a study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated by comparing average asthma rates between mothers living close to, and far away from highways. Those closer to highways had a 25 per cent higher chance of developing asthma before the age of five.

Air pollution also increases the risk of babies being born with asthma, as a study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated by comparing average asthma rates between mothers living close to, and far away from highways. Those closer to highways had a 25 per cent higher chance of developing asthma before the age of five. A different study from Columbia University in established a dose-dependent relationship between prenatal air pollution and reductions in white matter development in the brain (seen later in childhood), important for learning and communication between different brain regions. Slower processing of information, attention-deficit disorders and behavioral conduct disorders were more common in those exposed to higher rates of air pollution. A study by Columbia study conducted in China confirmed these findings, as they compared childhood development in a town where a coal plant shut down in 2004 over a period of ten years and reached the same conclusion that as the air pollution lessened, the rate of brain development in young children rose.

Energy Policy

On New Year’s day 2017, China issued a red alert for air pollution in Beijing and neighbouring cities, the most serious alert that can be issued to the general population. Seven hundred businesses shut down production, all intercity buses stopped, more than four hundred flights were cancelled, schools were closed and all traffic was restricted. The red alert generally lasts for four to five days, and is only issued in the worst of circumstances. The last red alert before this one was on December 21st, 2016, and the one before on December 8th, 2015. Even during these periods, many people go on with their daily lives and go outside, a lot of them without masks. The majority of those who are wearing masks, are not wearing properly effective masks, according to a physician from Beijing United Family Healthcare, who is trying to test over two hundred different masks. Saint Cyr, a doctor based in Beijing, is quoted as saying: ìIt disturbs me that people are walking around thinking wearing these things are safe, but they almost certainly are not.” The biggest problems with masks, he mentions, are material, fitting and the presence of an actual functioning filter. Creating the illusion that you are safe while actively harming yourself should be taken seriously by health officials.

To compensate for their children’s health and futures, many private schools and universities are now building and using air lock doors and air filtration systems, especially for sports and recreational buildings. The Principal of the British School of Beijing commented on the school’s new sports and recreational dome saying “We are delighted that the dome has come to fruition, meaning that students can now play in safe, healthy air, whatever the conditions outside.” However, not every school can afford new technology and to build these new structures. Many public schools have old and decaying infrastructure that can not support these additions. These kinds of short term solutions, while preventing health hazards, also promotes a mentality that we can continue to live in comfort and ignore the source of real long-term problems. Individuals instead need to focus their attention on what they can do to lower polluting emissions and increase pressure on their governing officials to provide new legislation.

In June 2012, the P.M. 2.5 readings by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Observatory diverged greatly, and the U.S. Embassy declared the air as “very unhealthy” depicting 199 micrograms. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau on the other hand refuted the data and said they had measured good levels between 51 and 79 micrograms, and asked the embassy to stop publishing inaccurate and unlawful data. However, the Chinese government has come around to begin transitioning to clean energy and investment in new technologies. In September 2016, China signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, a climate change accord which sets out to lower global emissions and contain rising temperature levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent melting of the ice caps and possibly devastating changes to global weather patterns. Xi Jinping, China’s president, spoke of the agreement stating: “I have said many times that green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver. To protect the environment is to protect productivity and to improve the environment is to boost productivity. We will unwaveringly pursue sustainable development and stay committed to green, low-carbon […]and to China’s fundamental policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment. In promoting green development, we also aim to address climate change […] We will make China a beautiful country with a blue sky, green vegetation and clear rivers so that our people can enjoy their lives in a liveable environment with the ecological benefits created by economic development.”

To accomplish the goals of capping global mean temperature deviation at 1.5 degrees Celsius and plateau global carbon emissions set out by the U.N., China needs to cut carbon emissions by sixty to sixty five per cent per unit of GDP by 2030 and allocate twenty per cent of its energy consumption from clean energies. China’s relatively new stance on clean energy follows suit from revisions on the country’s environmental regulations in 2014, which were the first changes to its legislation in 25 years, and president Jinping’s bold claim that he has declared war on pollution. The most notable changes from the revisions were ways to make businesses and individuals accountable for violating environmental laws by substantially increasing the fines for breaking them. Previously, fines were cheap enough that paying them off was much cheaper than actually complying with the laws set in place.

By 2020, China has planned to spend 350 billion dollars in clean energy, creating thirteen million jobs, mostly in mass scale solar plants. Even though China’s energy mostly comes from unclean coal and oil at the moment, it is still the world’s largest generator of solar energy, and broke the world record for most solar power capacity installed in one year. In 2015, they added one and half football fields of solar panels every hour for the whole year. In 2016, they doubled that to three football fields per hour of solar panels. The rest of the spending will be allocated to wind farms, hydro power, tidal and geothermal energy sources. Their goal is to establish 15 per cent of total energy consumption from clean renewable energy by 2020, and even if that seems like a small percentage, they will have built the foundation and paved the way to transition quickly at a larger scale than any other country in the world. Most importantly, coal consumption is slowly falling every year, and there is now official recognition that the energy potential of coal is not only less important to the Chinese economy model anymore, but that China officials also recognize the energy output potential of clean energy will eventually be more efficient and cheaper than unclean energy. From the current statistics of the speed at which China is installing solar panels, they could very well go beyond the 15 per cent target of 2020 and may even reach 17 per cent according to Greenpeace representatives in Beijing and research from The New Climate Economy Report in 2016. In comparison, United States clean energy accounted for 13.5 per cent of total energy consumption in 2015, while Canada’s clean energy accounts for nineteen per cent.

As it stands, the future is looking brighter than ever before for China’s development of clean energy. While the U.S. and China were both supposed to invest into new clean technology and transition their energy consumption sources, the U.S. will be looking to back out of the Paris Agreement following Trump’s U.S. Presidential victory, given his climate change denying Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department appointees, as well as the Republican majority in the House and Senate. Donald Trump will most likely succeed at rejecting the legislation and ratifications that Barack Obama just signed as they have not been voted on yet. What this means for China is that they have a golden opportunity to overtake the U.S. not only in economic growth and sustainability, but also as the global innovator in new, efficient, clean energy and as an leader in experimenting with pro-environmental legislation at a very large scale, only rivaled by California. Five of the six largest solar module manufacturing firms globally are Chinese, and the costs of production for the panels have decreased thirty per cent in 2016. In 2015, China already overtook the U.S. as the largest market for electric vehicles and have automobile companies striving to challenge the likes of Tesla in the industry.

However, the current importance and dependence on coal, still producing sixty per cent of the country’s electricity, imposes challenges on Chinese clean energy and its efforts to create the foundation to eliminate its air pollution challenges. There are documented cases of coal energy taking priority over clean energy creating surpluses which are wasted. In the first half of 2016, 21 per cent of wind power and 12.1 per cent of solar power went unused and could not be stored in Northern China, while coal had no problem finding its way to people’s homes. The good news is that the Chinese government is already hard at work to make sure this does not happen in the future by introducing legislative changes to the functionality of the power grid and its technology. The federal government has completely halted projects to expand coal power construction in 13 provinces, has delayed approving new ones in 15 others, and has demanded provincial and local jurisdictions to suspend all approval of these projects. They have also set out a minimum purchase guarantee for wind and solar energy creation, ensuring that any new clean energy infrastructure production is monetarily covered and subsidized by the government and given priority. Continuing their work at the local and provincial level, they have various detailed goals and targets for each province to meet minimum clean energy consumption and generation as incentives to create more. Other incentives include tax breaks on businesses switching to clean energy.


Besides P.M. 2.5, there are also aerosols in the atmosphere above China, which together along with the haze has been blocking sunlight from breaking through and decreasing sunlight radiation. The most notable effect of decreased sunlight is that it lowers efficiency and rate of photosynthesis in plants, a serious problem for agriculture if the concentration of air pollution continues to increase over time. Following potential future problems with agriculture in China, a 2009 study from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also discusses the links between air pollution and light rainfall. The research describes a 23 per cent decrease in light rainfall over the last fifty years caused by air pollution, and a high frequency of contaminated acid rain. Light rain is essential to agriculture and crops in comparison to heavy rainfall, which can cause flooding. Air pollution is also linked to lower amounts of photosynthetic chlorophyll pigments in plants, and slower growth from seedlings, according to He Dongxian, associate professor of China Agricultural university, whose research is yet to be published.

Even though the smog covering a vast swath of the country, which can prevent sunlight from getting through, a new study suggests that it can also trap heat from getting out. As solar radiation hits the earth’s crust, some is reflected and some is absorbed by the surface. A 2016 study from Yale School of Forestry and Environment measured urban cities in China as warmer than their rural metropolitan areas due to the amount of haze in cities that trap the heat in. The warming from the trapped heat currently results in a net warming of one degree Celsius compared to rural averages, which can become more as the global average deviation temperature from anthropological climate change increases. The amount of air pollution does not only affect China, as the pollution has been observed to blow over the Pacific all the way to the Western coast of the United States. According to research from University of California, Irvine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Los Angeles in California experiences one extra day a year of smog pollution exceeding federal pollution limits directly from China. Another 2010 study from the journal of Environmental Science & Technology has estimated that around 29 per cent of air pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area are also of Asian origin, most likely from China. Japan and South Korea, whom for the most part enjoy very clean air and very low levels of pollution, have started to notice changes and are also becoming concerned about Chinese pollution leaking over. In 2013, unusual smog covered Japanese cities of Ichihara and Tokyo, while South Korean sales of filtered masks jumped 481 per cent in sales over a one-week period.

China’s air is not its only polluted natural resource, as just in the last two years, officials have started opening up about both groundwater and soil pollution and contamination. According to state media reports, close to sixty per cent of groundwater systems across the whole country are unfit for drinking and are polluted, with only three per cent classified as clean. This is hugely problematic in conjunction with air pollution as one third of China’s resources rely on groundwater while most people especially in urban areas depend on either bottled water or boiling their water, which is ineffective at removing non-natural contaminants and pollutants. An example of such a contaminant would be the carcinogen benzene, which was part of a 2014 chemical spill in Lanzhou, a city of two million people. From a 2014 nationwide governmental survey, 16 per cent of soils tested in populated areas tested positive for other contaminants such as cadmium, mercury and arsenic. While this synergy of polluted air, water and soil will have untold negative effects on the health of many Chinese people, it must still be considered a step forward that federal powers are now releasing this information to the public.

China has a very long road ahead of them to clean their environment. The widespread contamination of the air, water and soil systems will continue to snowball down a very dangerous path that will prove fatal to humans, plants and wildlife alike. Wildlife and insects have lungs, gills and tracheal systems that also absorb these pollutants into their bodies and bloodstreams. Organic life with lower mass than human beings has the potential to be more greatly affected by the same concentration of pollutants as it is less diluted in their bodies. The only difference between plants, wildlife and us is that, they don’t have short term solutions such as air filtration systems and filtration masks. There’s no doubt that the Chinese government is finally taking a position that will enable them to slow the rate of increase of air pollution and emissions in the future. The real question that every Chinese official and citizen must ask themselves is: Will it be enough? Can we do better than lowering dependence on coal by only a few percentages every five years? Will future generations live in a world worse off than the world we currently enjoy? These are burdening questions that are not only pertinent to China, but that we must all face on an individual level in the face of climate change and a quickly deteriorating planet. My personal opinion on the matter is, the jobs of people in outdated unclean energy and damaging agricultural practices do not outweigh the survival of our planet nor the health of tens of millions of people.