Filthy Air Choking China's Growth, Olympic Goals

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In a recent study of overcast versus cloud-free days in China, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the amount of sunlight reaching the ground at 500 measurement stations in China fell dramatically between 1954 and 2001. This decline in solar radiation, which averaged 4.43 watts a square meter per decade, occurred despite an overall decrease in China’s cloud cover over the study period, according to the report. The authors surmise a link between the worsening haze and the country’s nine-fold increase in fossil fuel emissions since the 1950s.

China’s smog, caused mainly by emissions from power plants, vehicles, and other human activities, is seriously affecting urban air quality. In a 2003 World Bank survey of air pollution in 100 cities worldwide, more than 80 percent of the Chinese cities listed had sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide emissions above the World Health Organization (WHO) threshold, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2005 report. In Beijing, residents are warned to stay indoors during the spring dust storm season, and flight delays from heavy smog are common. In Guangzhou, fine particulate levels are up to five times U.S. safety limits. And in Hong Kong, sulfur dioxide levels rose by 41 percent in 2005 alone, threatening the city’s competitiveness as the free-trade center of Asia. For much of the year, the city is shrouded in smog and people can barely see across the famous Victoria Harbour.

Globally, China is home to 16 of the 20 cities with the most polluted air. Roughly one-third of the nation’s land area is exposed to acid rain, just one of the many environmental side effects of the 2.1 billion tons of coal produced and burned there last year. Acidification now affects some 30 percent of China’s cropland, and the estimated damage to farms, forests, and human health is US $13 billion, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2006 report. Ozone, a pollutant formed from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, is threatening crop yields as well. A study by the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology showed that the range of ozone exposure in agricultural regions in the Yangtze River Delta and Hong Kong Island is enough to reduce yields by 10 percent or more.

Air pollution is not just a matter of aesthetics, but increasingly one of life and death. While smog-obscured skylines grab the headlines, the lingering consequence of deteriorating air quality has been a rise in serious health problems and premature deaths. Worldwide, short- and long-term exposure to air pollution has been associated with a variety of adverse health effects, including acute respiratory inflammation, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. An estimated 200 Chinese cities fall short of WHO standards for the airborne particulates that are responsible for respiratory diseases.

A recent study by a Chinese research institute found that 400,000 premature deaths are caused every year in China by diseases linked to air pollution. And China's Ministry of Science and Technology reports that 50,000 newborn babies are killed by air pollution a year. Poor air quality can also exacerbate other life-threatening conditions: a 2003 study in Environmental Health found that SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a virus that swept through China and other parts of the world in 2003, is twice as likely to kill patients in China’s severely polluted areas. The study showed that in regions with low air pollution, the death rate was 4.08 percent; in areas with moderate pollution, such as Beijing, it was 7.49; and in areas of high pollution, it soared to 8.9 percent.

Scientists also worry that China’s pollution will accelerate the effects of global warming. China is already the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. With coal production set to exceed 2.2 billion tons this year, emissions are expected to increase, contributing to rising temperatures and, among other effects, to accelerated shrinkage of glaciers on the Tibetan plateau, which feed many of the big rivers of Southeast and South Asia. Moreover, the recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that the worsening haze may be masking the effects of global warming across central and eastern China, where daily high temperatures have actually decreased in recent decades. The authors warn that once the cooling mask is lifted, the pollution will likely accelerate the effects of global warming in these areas.

For China’s top officials, the sense of urgency is most keenly felt in Beijing, one of the country’s most polluted cities and the designated host of the 2008 Olympic Games. The city’s air pollution could become a major embarrassment if Beijing does not meet its environmental targets by 2008. Experts are speculating whether it is even feasible for Olympic athletes to run a marathon through streets where respiratory particulate levels average 3-4 times U.S. safety levels. The danger is real: on February 13, 22 runners were taken to the hospital, two in critical condition, after taking part in the biggest annual marathon in Hong Kong, which is currently experiencing the worst air pollution in months.

Beijing has already passed some of China's most ambitious environmental measures, and in 2005 it embraced 22 tough new rules, including strict controls on industrial smoke, automobile exhaust fumes, and construction dust. Tighter vehicle emissions standards were adopted in 2003, and some public buses now run on alternative fuels such as clean natural gas. Meanwhile, the city’s heaviest polluters, such as coking plants in the southeastern suburbs, have been relocated to neighboring cities, a move that has subsequently raised concerns about worsening air pollution in these areas.

Despite citywide efforts and tighter environmental regulations, however, Beijing's air has become increasingly hazardous to human health. In January, the city registered only 11 blue-sky days, the lowest figure for that month over the last six years. Although Beijing boasted 234 clear-sky days in 2005, 134 more than in 1998 (the year the city launched its “Defending the Blue Sky” campaign), the capital is experiencing ever-soaring motor vehicle growth, energy consumption, and construction in preparation for the Olympics. Greater efforts are needed, and the city’s best intentions must be implemented on the ground, in order to achieve WHO air quality standards by 2008.