Clearing Skies of China’s Air Pollution Crisis

A journalist who fled China’s air pollution looks back and sees rays of hope.


| Fall 2015



China's clearing skies

Suddenly citizens who'd been willing to ignore pollution were waking up to clear evidence of diminishing returns from fast economic growth.

Photo by Fotollia/axz65

After dark is when the pollution arrives on the outskirts of Shanghai. On a bright night, when moonlight refracts through the smog, you can see black clouds of soot pouring out of small workshop smokestacks silhouetted against the sky. In case you miss it in the dark, there’s always the morning’s first deep breath and the feeling of something raw in your throat.

I lived and breathed in Shanghai for 12 years, from 2002 to 2014, and those mornings seemed to grow worse. During my last three years, the first thing I’d do after waking—even before checking the weather—was to open the air-quality app on my phone. If the air was rated anything worse than “unhealthy”—the equivalent of “hazardous” under U.S. EPA guidelines, which happened at least monthly in the winter—I’d work from home. Eventually, my wife and I decided that it was time to leave the country—if not for our health, then for that of our first child.

The source of all that pollution isn’t hard to track down. It’s fossil fuels, and coal in particular. The numbers are astonishing, and speak to both the growth in China’s economy and the penalty it pays for not taking a cleaner route to development. In 2002, for example, China consumed 1.6 billion tons of coal; in 2012 it consumed 4.15 billion tons. Much of that was high-sulfur “dirty” coal burned in factories and power plants where emissions standards were widely ignored. But coal isn’t the sole culprit. Between 2000 and 2013, annual new-vehicle sales in China grew by more than 900 percent, to 22 million (Americans bought 15.6 million cars in 2013). In part to fuel those vehicles, China went from burning 4.8 million barrels of oil per day to 10.1 million barrels per day.

Other, less obvious sources of pollution can be even more damaging. For example, unlike the United States and the European Union, China allows oil tankers and container vessels to burn high-sulfur oil in its ports. Just one such ship cruising the Chinese coast can emit as much pollution in a day as 500,000 trucks. Shipping emissions lead to at least 1,600 deaths per year in China’s Pearl River Delta (which includes Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong), according to a 2014 Natural Resources Defense Council study. Altogether, in 2010 air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China, according to data from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study. In all likelihood, that number has only increased in recent years.

In spite of this, I am more optimistic than ever about China’s commitment to tackling its pollution. In the past five years, in particular, Chinese citizens, newly empowered by social media (China has more people connected to the internet than any other country), have become loud and powerful critics of China’s debilitating air quality, and the government is taking notice. 

“It’s causing an uproar, and it’s a threat to the leadership and the government—which they take very seriously,” explained Knut Alfsen, a Norwegian climate scientist and an adviser to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, a high-level advisory body to the Chinese government.