While China seems to be making efforts to improve its air quality, air pollution levels in China remain dangerously high. According to a recent study of air quality in five major cities in China, Beijing, the first stop on our trip, ranks as one of the most polluted cities in China and Guangzhou, the second city we visited and the capital of the southern province of Guangdong, ranks as one of the least.
Despite a decline in overall pollution levels as a result of stricter emissions regulations, air pollution levels across China remain higher than the World Health Organization’s upper safety limit of 35 micrograms of PM 2.5—fine particulate matter— per cubic meter. Compared to the WHO standard, China’s government uses a more liberal measurement that considers 75 micrograms of PM 2.5 “good.”
Not only do most cities regularly exceed the “good” level, it seems that this measure perpetuates a false notion of what is “safe” among Chinese citizens. Even on days when “hazardous air quality” was forecasted in Beijing, it was common to see people riding bikes and walking around without wearing a protective mask on.
As an asthmatic, I have experienced China with a heightened sensitivity to air quality. And while my asthma has been quite manageable and surprisingly less severe than I anticipated, the aforementioned differences in air quality between Beijing and Guangzhou are palpable.
Geographic factors contribute to pollution concentrations across China as well. Because it is surrounded by mountains, Beijing’s topography traps pollutants and is thus ill suited for heavy industry. Guangzhou on the other hand, lies more favorably in its proximity to water and its rainfall patterns.
Ironically, while China is the world’s worst polluter, it is also the largest investor in green energy and a leader in addressing environmental problems—at least on paper. China’s leaders understand the challenges and importance of addressing climate change and curbing emissions and are taking action on high-priority issues. Additionally, because the country is a late developer, it should consider the mistakes of other countries’ past development and avoid designing cities built on unsustainable energy. China has all the necessary tools to successfully lead the charge on sustainable development. All that is left is to put them into motion.
The Economist. (2013). The East is grey. Retrieved on May 9, 2017 from http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21583245-china-worlds-worst-polluter-largest-investor-green-energy-its-rise-will-have
Tatlow, D.K. (2016). China Air Quality Study Has Good News and Bad News. Retrieved on May 9, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/world/asia/china-air-pollution-beijing-shanghai-guangzhou.html