Clearing the Air

In October, 2013 the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (BEPB) issued a four-level emergency rating system to alert citizens to unhealthy air quality conditions and to trigger community, industrial, and government responses to eradicate the problem.

The four levels and their official description are:

The iconic CCTV building in downtown Beijing taken during the Orange alert.
The iconic CCTV building in downtown Beijing taken during the recent Orange alert.

Blue – pollution

Yellow – serious pollution

Orange – severe pollution

Red – extreme pollution

The BEPB and a special committee appointed for the purpose has the discretion to trigger the alert levels as they deem appropriate but there are publicly available pollution metrics that supposedly guide the decision-making process, the outcome of which can have significant cost and convenience implications for both the public and the government.

The responses mandated at each level are scaled but if the red alert is triggered all schools must close, ½ of the cars will be banned from the streets through even/odd license plate restrictions, and designated companies will be closed or required to reduce production by 70%.

On February 20, 2014 the BEPB issued a yellow alert when the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 331 with PM 2.5 being the major pollutant.  The following day the alert level went to orange, the first orange alert since the system was implemented, and by February 25 the AQI reached 484 (Measurements provided by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing exceeded 500, the upper limit of the scale, but it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison.) and PM 2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, an official carcinogen, was again the primary pollutant.

Guidelines established by the World Health Organization suggest that exposure to PM 2.5 concentrations above 25 micrograms per cubic meter for as little as one day should be considered unhealthy, so it’s no surprise that China’s top scientists and physicians are warning of a catastrophic impact on public health if the current situation continues unabated.  China Daily reported, “Zhong Nanshan, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said that without timely intervention pollution could have a potential health impact much greater than that of the SARS epidemic” of 2003.

In many ways Beijing is an eco-friendly city.  The government has provided 50,000 bicycles for rent.  Riders can pick up and drop off at any of the many stations that dot the downtown.
In many ways Beijing is an eco-friendly city. The government has provided 50,000 bicycles for rent. Riders can pick up and drop off at any of the many stations that dot the downtown.

A study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences released in February of this year, which noted that Beijing’s social inclusiveness was already on par with world-class cities like London and Paris, further noted that Beijing was almost “uninhabitable for human beings,” ranking second to last in living environment among the 40 major world-cities rated.

There are many sources of air pollutants, of course, and not all of them involve large factories with billowing smokestacks.  Construction sites and the cement plants that support them (no smokestacks) are among the worst contributors.  And automobiles, which Beijing is now awash in, are obvious culprits.

Industrial smokestacks, in fact, are not a common sight within Beijing proper.  Most large industrial plants have, in fact, been closed down or relocated.  (During the orange level alert, 36 companies were told to cease operation while another 75 were instructed to reduce operating levels.)

While coal remains the prevalent fuel for power generation Beijing has already done much to clean up its energy supply.  (That is steam coming out of the cooling tower of this energy plant in Beijing.)
While coal remains the prevalent fuel for power generation Beijing has already done much to clean up its energy supply. (That is steam coming out of the cooling tower of this energy plant in Beijing.)

China does, however, rely on coal for 70% of its power generation.  Speaking at a forum held by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yuesi Wang, a researcher from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, noted that, “The overall area of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei accounts for some 0.05 percent of the world…(but) this region consumes 11 percent of its coal…We are living inside a huge chimney.”

This is not a new problem for Beijing, to be sure.  In the year leading up to the Summer Olympics of 2008 the government took dramatic steps to reduce air pollution by relocating factories and power plants, closing down nearly all non-Olympic construction sites for a period of six months, limiting private cars to even/odd day driving restrictions, and planting enormous amounts of green vegetation both in the city and to the west, home to the Gobi desert and the prevailing winds that bring it grain by grain to Beijing.

And it seemed to work, at least for a while.  By the Chinese timeline of development, however, 2008 was eons ago.  Urbanization and economic growth have continued unabated even though the government is now satisfied with 7.5% GDP growth rather than the double-digit growth it achieved over the prior two decades.

This is more than a long-term health issue for the residents of Beijing.  At my daughters’ school, the children are not allowed to go outside when the AQI is above 150, which it frequently is.  The school, in fact, ultimately gave in and housed several of its outdoor athletic facilities within air-purified domes.

In 2011 750,000 new cars were registered in Beijing alone.  In 2014 the government will issue only 110,000 new plates for non-electric vehicles.
In 2011 750,000 new cars were registered in Beijing alone. In 2014 the government will issue only 110,000 new plates for non-electric vehicles.

Adults and businesses have felt the pinch as well.  In 2011 750,000 new vehicles were registered in Beijing.  In 2014, however, the government will issue merely 110,000 new license plates for non-electric vehicles, a necessary restriction that has nonetheless created a premium market for used cars that come with license plates and made it all but impossible for many younger families to acquire their first vehicle.

Even workers and families who are fortunate enough to already have vehicles have felt the sting of much higher parking fees designed to promote the use of public transit and driving restrictions which keep all vehicles off the streets of Beijing one day per week.  (As in other world-cities that have attempted similar restrictions, the wealthy often circumvent the intent of the restriction by simply buying a second vehicle with a complementary plate number.)

So, what to do?

When it comes to social, economic, and environmental policy in China, it seems, the conversation quickly turns to the Chinese government; understandably and rightfully so in most cases.  The government has plenty of money (much of it in the U.S. dollars that America willingly traded for lower prices) and its authority, while not unlimited, is the envy of many Western democracies.

Construction sites and the cement plants that support them are one of the biggest contributors to PM 2.5 pollution.
Construction sites and the cement plants that support them are one of the biggest contributors to PM 2.5 pollution.

When it comes to the environment, however, the government challenge is more one of enforcement than regulation.  There are plenty of regulations already on the books and with the government’s broad powers to interpret and apply those regulations as it sees fit, there is little standing in its way other than the government’s own diversity of interests.

It sounds ironic, I know, but in cases like environmental protection, it is the lack of singular purpose within the government’s own politically monolithic ranks that sometimes raises the most resistant barriers to coordinated social action.  Where one government official is preoccupied with air quality, another may have more immediate concerns for employment levels or tax revenues.

In this case, however, President Xi himself appears prepared to take the lead.  Having toured a couple of residential neighborhoods at the height of the orange alert crisis (without sporting the face mask that his own government was recommending at the time), he has taken visible steps to bring government officials in line on the issue, promising harsher penalties for polluters and tighter discipline in enforcement.

It’s a necessary and laudable first step but there is still work to be done.  During the most recent air quality crisis many critics noted that the government did not invoke a red alert despite conditions that clearly met its own guidelines for doing so.  Divergent interests, one has to assume, in a government apparatus that prefers consensus, were undoubtedly the reason.

I fear, however, that even if President Xi is successful in rallying real government support around the issue it will not be enough and that those who view air pollution to be a government problem will be woefully disappointed at the results achievable by regulation alone.

On two separate occasions during the air quality crisis a close Chinese friend and a work colleague both urged me to buy a facemask to wear outside.  And when I noted that neither of them was wearing one they each quickly responded, “I am Chinese.  You are a foreigner,” going on to suggest that they were forced, by virtue of their birthplace, to be strong and adaptable and could thus accommodate the pollution more easily than me.

Really?

The comments were meant as mere statements of fact and taken as such.  There is an implication of resignation, however, and perhaps a slight presumption of good luck, that I find both common and a bit dismissive when it comes to solving big social problems.  And in the end it all comes down to accountability.

Everyone in Beijing has an app that allows them to follow the AQI on their phone or tablet.  Both the Chinese government and the U.S. Embassy issue ratings and they're not always the same but contrary to legend the government's is often higher.  Differences are mostly a function of monitor location.
Everyone in Beijing has an app that allows them to follow the AQI on their phone or tablet. Both the Chinese government and the U.S. Embassy issue ratings and they’re not always the same but contrary to legend the government’s is often higher. Differences are mostly a function of monitor location.

Is the government accountable for the air quality in Beijing?  Many people both inside and outside of China would say, yes, and emphatically so.  And it seems to matter little whether they are supporters or critics of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

To my way of thinking, however, big public problems are, by definition, public, and can only be solved through collective accountability.  The skies over Beijing, in other words, will only shine blue when the residents of Beijing, public and private alike, decide to accept collective accountability for that outcome.

In J.D. Salinger’s timeless novel, Franny & Zooey, Seymour asks Zooey to shine his shoes prior to the radio broadcast of the game show that Zooey and his sister are participating in.  As usual, Zooey pushes back, noting that it’s a radio broadcast and that the few people actually watching the show in person are ‘morons’ anyway.  Bringing the message of the book to a climax, Seymour points out that he should do it for the ‘Fat Lady’ in the audience.  (Salinger could never get away with such a turn of phrase today, of course, as well he shouldn’t, given the current abuse of language among those with an orange crate to stand on.  In his day, however, adjectives were still adjectives.)

The ‘Fat Lady,’ of course, is a literary reference to God or Jesus or whichever deity or person or spiritual entity fills that role in your belief system.  The point is that we must all be accountable to someone or something beyond ourselves.  If we are the sole arbiters of our actions and such arbitration takes place in a value-less vacuum, we are surely destined for an empty existence.  And if we do so collectively anarchy and chaos is sure to prevail.

Until the people of Beijing take some personal accountability for the quality of the air they breathe, in other words, there is little hope that the problem will get resolved.  So long as people are guided by what they can get away with rather than what is right or what is in the collective good, broad social problems, like air pollution, will continue to persist.

How we got here is only relevant to the extent that such understanding promotes problem-solving.  “Wherever you go, there you are,” as Confucius said.  It is what it is.  The only choice we really have in life is what to do next.

When people stop driving simply because they can; stop polluting because some local official allows them to; stop consuming simply because they now have the money to; and begin to hold themselves, their fellow citizens, and their government accountable, the problem, without a doubt, will dissipate into blue skies.

Until then, maybe I will buy one of those masks after all.

What a difference a cold front makes.  Three days after the orange alert was lifted I took this picture while climbing on the Great Wall near Mu Tian Yu.
What a difference a cold front makes. Three days after the orange alert was lifted I took this picture while climbing on the Great Wall near Mu Tian Yu.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.