Air pollution – How bad is it?

Western media often show pictures or discuss the air pollution challenges facing China. Almost everyone has seen pictures of people with face masks walking in a grey haze. Are these rare occurrences? Is it as bad as it seems? Let us have a look at what is happening.

tiananmen-square-in-beijingTiananmen Square in Beijing. Source: Source: Reuters

The key issue for air pollution in China mainly focuses on small particles in suspension in the air. Unlike the West, which faced the acid rain challenge in the 1970’s, China faces a different problem, though it can be difficult to appreciate the extent of the challenges as pollution is not openly discussed in the Chinese media.

Let us understand what the PM2.5 standard is. PM2.5 stands for Particulate Matter of 2.5 micrometers (0.0025mm) or less. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a guideline and a guide for PM2.5. The guideline stipulates that PM2.5 should not exceed     10 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) annual mean (i.e. similar to average), or 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean for it to be acceptable. The WHO guide on PM2.5 is as follows.

who-air-quality-guide-for-pm2-5World Health Organization Air Quality Guide on PM2.5. Source: WHO

It is to be noticed that China has set the PM2.5 at a higher acceptable level than the WHO standard. The acceptable annual mean was increased from 10 μg/m3 to 35, and the 24-hour mean from 25 μg/m3 to 75. In effect, China has tripled the level set by the WHO, which makes it less demanding.

Let us now look at the actual PM2.5 pollution over the years. The data was obtained from the US Embassy in Beijing, which has a monitoring station on its roof. An analysis of the data has provided the following table.

beijing-air-quality-2008-2015 Source: US Embassy in Beijing (

For example, based on the above graph, roughly 180 days a year (i.e. 49% of 365 days) in Beijing would have a PM2.5 that would be Unhealthy (i.e. between 151 and 200).

If we use the mid-point value in each category of the WHO Air Quality Guide, we arrive at an annual average of 163 μg/m3, which is 4.7 higher than the Chinese acceptable standard and 16.3 times higher than the WHO acceptable standard.

The PM2.5 pollution is not distributed equally across China and affects particularly the eastern regions which are large consumers of coal, with an even greater pollution level in the provinces adjoining Beijing.

provincial-distribution-of-pm2-5-pollutionProvincial distribution of PM2.5 pollution, 2008-2010. Source: NASA

We can therefore conclude that the air pollution issue is of serious concern in China. But how do the Chinese people feel about this issue?

In a survey in spring 2015, the Pew Global Survey found that nationwide 76% of Chinese view air pollution as a moderate (41%) or very important (35%) problem. If this survey would have been done in the provinces that are most affected by air pollution, the percentage would have been understandably higher.

coal-consumption-of-coalNational wide, the consumption of coal generate by far the largest percentage of the PM2.5 pollution. Source: AFP

In China, air pollution contributes to an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths annually through an increase occurrence of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.

The state has realized that this issue has impacted a large segment of the Chinese population. It has started to take action, but for some, it is too little. To a limited extent, people have taken to the street to protest. The state has reacted forcefully to any public display of disapproval as seen in the city of Chengdu in Dec. 2016, where protesters were arrested and a planned protest was prevented.

sit-in-protest-in-chengdu        The sit-in protest over problems of smog in Chengdu lasted for 10 minutes before the demonstrators were taken away by police. Source: Twitter@paleylin

In an upcoming post, we will look at the actions taken by the government and what could be done to address the fundamental sources of the PM2.5 problem.


Note: An excellent article (Jan. 18, 2016) from the Council on Foreign Relations presents the environmental challenges that China is facing (China’s Environmental Crisis). It can be found at:

One thought on “Air pollution – How bad is it?

  1. I can hardly breathe! I’m looking forward to hearing from you about this adventure, Pierre. I’m developing an online Intro Marketing course this term, and I’ll fill you in on that process when we meet. 拜拜 Rob


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s