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On bad days in Beijing, when the smartphone apps that people now rely on to gauge air pollution levels shoot pass the hazardous ‘PM500’ limit on the China Air Quality Index, you can taste the pollution in the air. It's a deeply unpleasant mixture of diesel fumes and oil.

The Index is based on the number of particulate matters (PM) in the air, specifically those pollutants less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) that can go deep into the lungs and cause lung cancer, bronchitis and asthma. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends PM20 as a healthy level. China’s economic growth in the past three decades has been the envy of the world, but the environment has paid a heavy price, and the World Bank now believes 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China.

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. 

Greenpeace is lobbying hard for a coal cap in the eastern region. They also want to see DeNOx ‘end-of-pipe’ systems for removing nitrogen oxides in older power stations, and introduced in sectors that are burning a lot of coal, such as the cement industry. “We want to encourage corporates to use more end-pipe equipment rather than just pay the pollution charges,” Zhou says.

Beijing, Guangzhou and other major cities have switched to natural gas, but Greenpeace also advocates maximizing other renewable energy potential to substitute for coal.

In the 12th Five-Year Energy Plan, which was approved by policy makers in October last year, officials are required to take water resource and ecological capacity into consideration in the development of large scale coal bases.

The Five-Year Plan includes a cap on primary energy consumption at four billion metric tons of standard coal by 2015, implying a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3% over the 12th five-year period, compared to 6.6% CAGR over the 11th five-year period. It also includes a total electricity consumption cap of 6.15 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2015.

According to Greenpeace projections, national coal consumption should peak around 2020. The Pearl River Delta Region will have no new coal in the next Five Year Plan. So several regions will have restriction on coal use, but current plans show use is still growing. 

The “Airpocalypse” of January 2013, as the pollution of that month in China’s major cities was termed, has changed attitudes among the government and among research bodies closely allied to the powers-that-be.
And since the government has started being more open about pollution readings, and stopped calling smog “fog”, local people have become a lot more concerned.

Zhong Nanshan, a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Engineering who made his name helping to identify and then halt the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), believes the smog is more harmful than the outbreak in 2003, which killed 349 people on the mainland.

“The number of pneumonia cases in Beijing has increased by 60% in the past 10 years. That’s astonishing,” he says in an interview with the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV. He has urged people, especially anyone working outdoors, to take preventative measures such as wearing masks.

There are other issues too. The sulfur content of vehicle fuel is very high. In Beijing, personal and public vehicles contribute the largest proportion of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants to the atmosphere. The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates they account for around one-fifth of the small particulate emissions.

Most recently, the State Council said a new, low-sulfur standard for automotive diesel would become mandatory by the end of next year, and that an even stricter, low-sulfur standard for both gasoline and diesel would come into effect by 2017. 

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