Fresh Air By 2030 静候佳气

China’s Air Pollution: The Tipping Point

By Michael Zhao

When, in January, the gray, soupy, acidic air enshrouding China’s capital demanded the creation of the neologism “Airpocalypse,” it looked as though Beijing might finally reach a tipping point—that enough political will might bubble up through the haze to catalyze a real change for clean air.

For almost the whole month, much of urban China all but disappeared behind the heaviest toxic smog on record. Beijing registered air pollution readings off the charts. On some days, for hours at a time, the air quality index (AQI) in the capital flirted with 1,000—twice the highest, most dangerous level of fine particulate matter measured in the air by the Chinese government’s own instruments. And Beijing’s air was relatively clean when compared with places such as nearby Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province.

For more than six years, I recorded the daily air quality by taking pictures from fixed points in several major Chinese cities. I thought I’d seen the full range of smog a huge developing country with a booming economy had to offer before something would have to be done about it.

But January’s dirty air defied any previous standards and begged me to connect China’s air pollution crisis to the overall global climate change challenge.

As of May, the Earth’s atmosphere was 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, much higher than the upper safety limit of 350 agreed by most scientists. Yet we aren’t even talking about it that much, let alone consciously acting each and every day to make the necessary changes.

Most people seem either to ignore climate change altogether or hang on to some, often vague, faith that it won’t happen to them and, if by some chance it should, it wouldn’t be any time soon. Indeed, nobody can predict with much accuracy the presumed climate change-driven catastrophes that lie in store for us on the horizon. But we needn’t wait to understand what’s to come as we’ve already seen it in events such as Hurricane Sandy.

Climate change and the resultant severe weather is one thing, but air pollution is a different matter. We’ve seen the worst air imaginable and know it’s the most visible form of mankind’s pollution. There are days when I think that if sane people can’t get their act together enough to address the sort of unbreathable air China experienced in January, we all should consider calling it quits in the fight against global climate change.

Other days, thankfully, I’m reminded of the month of near perfect blue sky days Beijing achieved in August 2008 to accommodate the Summer Olympics. The city took steps and the pollution all but stopped. Since then, the capital’s only gotten bigger, but if China bites the bullet, its cities can clean up their air, bit by bit over the coming generation. If car-crazy Los Angeles once did it, and Beijing has proven it’s possible, even in China, then Chinese cities everywhere simply have to follow suit.

Nowadays, with social media tools such as weibo and weixin so prevalent in everybody’s life, air pollution is a constant trending topic of discussion. It’s not just when smog hits Beijing that people share all sorts of smoggy pictures and AQI infographics. When, occasionally, Beijing basks in sunny, crisp blue sky days, pollution-wary residents are seen to walk outside and share their joy at the rare sight. Blue skies are making tourists of long-time residents in big Chinese cities. When the skies are clear, the city-dwellers emerge to see their home anew. The question is, when will they demand that the air remain clean, not just appear, as if by luck, once or twice a month.

Whether or not Beijing really can clean its air by 2030 is important in many ways. Such an accomplishment would erase tons of heavy metals—some carcinogenic—from the environment surrounding some 20 million capital residents. Cleaning up the air over China’s capital would make the city attractive again to people arriving from all over the world, and it might stem the flow of expatriates who lately have been leaving in droves to escape the persistent hacking “Beijing cough.”

Cleaning up China’s air would prove that Beijing can be trusted as an indispensable stakeholder in the fight against global climate change. We’ve seen the air over China’s cities as bad as it can get and we’ve heard people talk plenty about it. Now is the time for the government to listen and act, to get serious about cleaning up the filth that there’s no denying exists and no denying is harmful to everyone who breathes it in.

Check the air quality daily at

Greenpeace China’s air pollution campaign page

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