China Admits Its Cities Are Failing Pollution Standards As Beijing Chokes On Smog Again

Air pollution and smog clog the sky over China's capital of Beijing in February 2014.

Air pollution and smog clog the sky over China’s capital of Beijing in February 2014.

CREDIT: AP Photo / Alexander F. Yuan

China released a report yesterday that only a tiny fraction of its cities fully complied with pollution standards in 2013 — even as smog levels in the nation’s capital of Beijing once again hit astonishing levels.

China’s laws currently require different cities and areas in the country to cut their air pollution by different amounts. The country’s government announced a “name and shame” campaign near the end of 2013 to single out the cities that fell the furthest behind their required reductions. And in early 2014, China tightened those required cuts to anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent per year depending on the city.

Yet the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged in a statement yesterday that only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with their required pollution reductions over the course of 2013, according to Reuters.

The news was especially poignant, as Bloomberg reported the same day that pollution levels in China’s capital city were ten times what experts consider safe. Specifically, the concentration of PM2.5 — a form of particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels like coal — in Beijing’s air hit 242 micrograms per cubic meter. PM2.5 is a key component of smog and other forms of air pollution, and exposure to it increases risks of cardiovascular disease, lung inflammation, asthma, and premature death.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 24 hours of exposure to PM2.5 concentrations of a mere 25 micrograms per cubic meter to be the safety limit; one-tenth of the level hit yesterday. Concentrations above 300 are considered hazardous.

The WHO recently calculated that outdoor air pollution of this sort contributes to 3.7 million deaths around the world each year, while equivalent indoor pollution is a factor in another 4.3 million deaths annually. The organization’s initial 2008 estimate was 1.3 million deaths from outdoor pollution, and the jump was largely driven by improvements in data collection — especially in rural areas. Over 650 million Chinese residents lived in the rural areas of the nation as of 2012, and a study in the medical journal The Lancet put the premature deaths caused by the country’s air pollution at 350,000 to 500,000 per year.

Sales of face masks to guard against inhaling the pollution have boomed in China: purchases through the online e-commerce site Taobao increased 181 percent over last year. Unfortunately, only nine of the 37 mask types tested by the China Consumers Association met the required standards for filtering particulate matter.

“The vast majority of face masks on the market give no protection against PM2.5, even if the manufacturers claim they do,” said Lei Limin, the vice chairman of the China Textile Commerce Association.

Beijing has been hit by a rolling threat of off-the-charts pollution in the first months of 2014. PM2.5 concentrations ranged between 200 and 300 for three days straight in February. In January, the concentration hit levels of 350, 500, 671, and even spiked to a record-shattering 723 micrograms per cubic meter. Records are also being set in other Chinese cities like Shanghai, which saw so much pollution in one week last year that it cancelled airline flights and sporting events.

China also remains the world’s biggest consumer and producer of coal. It relies on the fossil fuel for 70 to 80 percent of its energy needs, with at least 2,300 coal-fired power plants operating across the country. And China’s coal production capacity also just keeps increasing. In 2013, it approved construction of more than 100 million metric tons of coal — six times what it approved in 2012, and the equivalent of 10 percent of America’s total annual coal usage.

That all makes China the biggest driver of global coal consumption, which has climbed steeply upwards since 2000, and is predicted to just keep increasing for the next two decades on current trends.

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