Layer upon layer of pollution, from coal-fuelled power plant emissions to vehicle exhaust fumes, are combining to create a challenge for environmentalists. A chart published by Bloomberg showed that the air is similar to that in an airport smoking lounge. Air pollution is estimated to kill 700,000 people a year in China.
In Beijing, the government has taken steps: ordering some cars off its roads, including state vehicles; shutting factories; and recommending that its 20 million residents avoid outdoor activities because of air pollution. But the deeper issues remain in dealing with air pollution, chief among them power generation. Coal-fired power stations account for more than 70% of China’s energy production, while nearly 20 million cars were sold here last year, making China the world leader in car sales.
By studying satellite maps from NASA, and other international studies, combined with their own research, the environmentalist group Greenpeace believes the priority is to address the coal-fired power stations.
“Overall, for the whole of eastern China, the air quality is among the worst in the world,” says Zhou Rong, a Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner who specializes in air pollution issues. “We think there is a very big correlation with coal burning, almost one fourth of the world’s total on the east coast. We compared maps of the highest coal burning locations with air quality data, and it is no coincidence that highly polluted air is very often found near the locations of coal burning.”
During the 2008 Olympics, when the capital needed to look its best for the world, interim solutions were found. The government closed neighboring factories for several months, or checked which way the wind was blowing and closed the plants accordingly. For example, the giant Capital Steel plant was moved outside the city, but only as far as the foot of surrounding hills, where the pollution does not disperse easily, and often blows back in.
“After the big events, the air pollution came back. We are burning more coal on an annual basis. We have a 44% increase in coal burning between 2005 and 2010. This trend keeps going up. That’s why the air pollution is getting worse,” says Ms. Zhou.