Can Efficiency Save Chinese Cities from Airmageddon?

""“The playground is closed today kids.” I heard those unwelcome words all too frequently growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Air quality in the Los Angeles basin was the worst in the country throughout most of my childhood. This was largely due to the millions of private vehicles and the smog-trapping effect of the encircling mountains. Not being allowed outside because of air pollution was an unhappy reality on too many summer days of my youth.

Today, through tightened vehicle emissions standards and mandatory smog checks, the air quality in Los Angeles is greatly improved. The 200 “red alert” days reported in 1975 dropped to just three in 2010, while private vehicle ownership has nearly tripled over the same period.

China is facing pollution challenges today similar to what Los Angeles faced during the 1980s. In northern China, children are forced to stay indoors and home from school during peak smog events, which have been occurring with increasing frequency. Northern Chinese cities have recently been hit by some of the worst air quality on record, prompting journalists to refer to “airmageddon,” a term coined last winter when Beijing air pollution soared off the chart previously used to measure it. Others have called it “airpocalypse.”

In the city of Harbin—capital of Heilongjiang province, home to more than ten million residents, and the tenth largest city in China—pollution levels are also breaking records. Officials were recently forced to close the airport, highways, and schools in Harbin due to heavy levels of pollution that at times obscured visibility to only 10 meters.

PM2.5, or particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 microns (less than one thirtieth the width of a human hair), is one of the most dangerous and prevalent air pollutants in northern China. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers exposure to PM2.5 to be safe below 25 micrograms per cubic meter, but readings in Harbin have regularly been above 600 over the past week. A few monitoring stations reported levels of 1,000, causing experts to wonder whether the PM2.5 concentration had exceeded the equipment’s ability to measure it.

The human cost of contaminated air in China is enormous, and a WHO Global Burden of Disease report indicated that 1.2 million people died prematurely in China in 2010 due to air pollution. A recently released study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 2.5 billion years of life expectancy have been lost in China due to air pollution—that’s the staggering equivalent of the cumulative lifetime for all the 35 million residents in the metro area of the world’s most populous city, Tokyo.

China Daily has reported on short-term attempts to curb the pollution levels in Harbin: “Government officials are asking farmers to stop burning crop stalk, while Harbin’s environmental bureau has also conducted checks on factories that discharge pollutants.”

But those small measures are not nearly enough to clean the air. More persistent causes of northern China’s air pollution are the emissions from coal-fired heating systems and vehicles. (In the last ten years, the number of cars on the road in China has quadrupled.) The Chinese government is taking preliminary steps to address these systemic problems.

A plan released last month by the State Council puts some limits on coal burning and even more stringent limits on private vehicle use. The plan is designed to reduce particulate matter by 25 percent in northern China, and introduced a color-coded, four-tier system for reporting the severity of smog. On red days, factories will be forced to close, and based on the last digit of their license plate, half of the four million private vehicles in Beijing will not be allowed on the road, alternating daily until the pollution levels drop. (In addition, Beijing recently passed laws forcing the mandatory retirement of cars older than 20 years for freight and 13 for passenger vehicles.)

Forcing highly polluting cars off the road and suspending the operations of factories may help improve air quality tomorrow or next week, but more systemic issues must be addressed to create durable change. New York City’s Clean Heat initiative, which phased out the use of the most polluting types of heating oils, has led to the city having cleaner air today. Combining cleaner heating fuels with better-insulated buildings is one concrete measure that would support cleaner skies in northern China and beyond. The city of Harbin has made steps in that direction, investing $1.1 million in 2012 to retrofit 21 million square feet of residential buildings with better insulation. Unfortunately, that is a drop in the bucket for China, which builds about 22 billion new square feet per year.

There is a growing awareness in China that environmental protection is no longer an obstacle to economic growth. Rather, the absence of environmental regulations could eventually stifle growth. Earlier this year, China’s state run Global Times editorialized:

“China’s rapid development has brought us many benefits as well as accumulated many problems. Environmental protection should take up a more prominent position in China’s future strategy even if it means that China’s economic development will slow down.”

Rocky Mountain Institute has three decades of experience creating market-driven solutions to complex energy challenges. Our current initiative in China aims to enhance Chinese energy and environmental security without eroding economic growth. Reinventing Fire: China is a partnership with influential energy experts and decision makers in China and the project’s goal is to chart a clean energy future for the nation. The project, which launched in Beijing in June, is measuring the technical potential, economic viability, and emissions implications of rapidly deploying efficiency technologies and renewables in China through 2050. Reinventing Fire: China won’t have final results until late 2014, but based on the opportunities we have already identified, we believe that China will be able to meet much of its energy need using renewable energy, while growing its economy and radically improving air quality over the next 40 years.

That’s good news for the residents of Harbin, Beijing, and anywhere fossil fuel burning is shutting down not just playgrounds, but entire cities.

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