Beijing’s record-breaking pollution levels

5 Feb

The title of a Guardian article published on the 13th January 2013 says it clearly: “Top tip if you’re going out in Beijing: don’t breathe”. Beijing’s air pollution is now hitting a record by being 30-45 times above the safety levels hence making the city air incredibility unhealthy and particularly dangerous. Regarding the upcoming New Year’s celebrations on the 10th of February families have been advised to use as few fireworks as possible or to avoid them completely to prevent a further worsening of air quality. Even several flights have been cancelled because of low visibility.

This table shows why Beijing’s pollution is extremely worrying:

Climate desk Beijing air pollution

China’s problem with pollution and the safeguard of the environment is certainly one of the flaws in its fast-paced rise. The fact that a city such as Beijing cannot guarantee the safety and health of its citizens is particularly worrying and leads to question whether or not China is trying to reduce the bad effects on the environment.

So, on a more positive note, have a look at how technology has been used to create renewable energy through wind turbines and solar panels in Gansu province, making the Chinese a model to look at:

Is there any hope that China will be become a less polluted country or are these attempts to create renewable energy and be more sustainable irrelevant seen the gravity of the problem?



6 Responses to “Beijing’s record-breaking pollution levels”

  1. db7g09 February 5, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    A very hot topic at the moment, and the health consequences are unprecedented. I know for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, scientists in China used a technique called ‘cloud seeding’ which involved inducing rain from a cloud, usually by firing suitable particles of silver iodide into clouds containing super-cooled water in an attempt to cause them to dissipate, modify their structure, or alter the intensity of associated phenomena, such as wind speed or hail. This seemed to dissipate the smog, and whether this could be used again, or a more regular basis, would be interesting to see.

    • db7g09 March 14, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

      A very hot topic at the moment, and the health consequences and potential deaths from the pollution are unprecedented. I know for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, scientists in China used a technique called ‘cloud seeding’ which involved inducing rain from a cloud, usually by firing suitable particles of silver iodide into clouds containing super-cooled water in an attempt to cause them to dissipate, modify their structure, or alter the intensity of associated phenomena, such as wind speed or hail. This seemed to dissipate the smog, and whether this could be used again, or on a more regular basis, would be interesting to see.

      Despite some successful tests, cloud seeding still has many problems. The fundamental concern is: Does it work? It may be a chicken-and-egg conundrum — would it have rained in a given area without the use of cloud seeding, and would it have rained less? Cloud seeding also depends heavily on environmental conditions like temperature and cloud composition.

      In 2003, the United States National Academy of Sciences declared that 30 years of studies had not produced “¬convincing” evidence that weather modification worked and even whether it actually clear pollution on mass. On the other hand, the American Meteorological Society claims that some studies on cloud seeding show a 10 percent increase in rain volume, which some academics such as Amir Givati and Daniel Rosenfeld from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, state that “pollution can decrease as much as 12%–14%, dependant on the cloud seeding activity.” To me, this seems low, but at least there is a reduction, no matter how minor it is.

      Cloud seeding is quite expensive, though potentially cheaper than other projects, like diverting rivers, building new canals or improving irrigation systems. Then again, the allure of cloud seeding may redirect attention and funding from other projects that could be more promising. Then there are questions about altering weather. Are some areas taking moisture out of the air that would have fallen as rain in another region? Furthermore, isn’t this effort better spent tackling the causes of that pollution?
      Despite reassurances from cloud-seeding companies, concerns also remain about expo¬sure to silver iodide toxicity and soil contamination. Other safety issues are more transparent. In China, wayward munitions have damaged property and even killed one person in May 2006. The Chinese government contends that it has improved training, licensing and safety practices. In the end, cloud seeding has strong supporters, but it remains controversial.

      Scientists may not be sure if cloud seeding actually works, but despite the scepticism, China is moving forward. The nation spends $60 to $90 million a year on weather modification, in addition to the $266 million spent from 1995 to 2003. The government plans to produce 1.7 trillion cubic feet (50 billion cubic meters) of rain a year through the practice.

      Is cloud seeding just a way of sweeping pollution under the rug and playing God to ensure you don’t have to schedule a rain date? Or is it merely a matter of tweaking weather to your advantage? However you look at it, it’s not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, Chinese scientists have already proposed building fleets of massive, unmanned ships to seed clouds over Earth’s oceans to provide a cooling counter to carbon dioxide-induced global warming. If cloud seeding is ultimately a way to “fake it” when guests come to visit, do we really want a world where we have to manually adjust the planet’s atmosphere just to stave off pollution?


      Givati, Amir, Daniel Rosenfeld, ‘Separation between Cloud-Seeding and Air-Pollution Effects’ (2005) J. Appl. Meteor., 44, 1298–1314, 1310.

      ‘China funds cloud seeding, weather modification’ [accessed 14/03/2013].

      Aiyar, Pallavi. “Ready, aim, fire and rain.” Asia Times. July 13, 2007. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      Associated Press. “China to force rain ahead of Olympics.” Live Science. April 25, 2007. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      “China to zap rain clouds with rockets.” Reuters. July 17, 2007. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      Cotton, William R. “Weather Modification by Cloud Seeding – A Status Report 1989 – 1997.” Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Colorado State University. April 21, 1997. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      Eckhardt, Gregg. “Cloud Seeding.” The Edwards Aquifer Website. Nov. 6, 2008 [accessed 13/03/2013].

      “History for Beijing, BJ.” Weather Underground. Aug. 8, 2008 [accessed 13/03/2013].

      O’Neil, Ian. “The Chinese ‘Weather Manipulation Missile’ Olympics. Universe Today. Aug. 12, 2008. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      “Rainmaking in China.” Things Asian. June 21, 2004. [accessed 13/03/2013].

      “Weather Modification: China claims cloud-seeding success” [accessed 13/03/2013].

  2. timhaythorne February 5, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Referring to a population density map, you would have to infer that renewable energy plans would seem relatively futile if focused anywhere west of Chongqing. Comparing Gansu and Inner Beijing, you can see that there potentially 18 times more people per square kilometre in the latter, which hopefully portrays the importance of renewable energy source placement when considering welfare effects.

    Cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen would seem like the most obvious choices to place renewable energy plants. Though, maybe a mix of the limited relative output of these plants when partnered with the huge demand by population density, or the opportunity cost of more cost efficient construction plans (ie. housing!) might explain their reluctance to invest there.

    I think you are right to question whether their efforts are to be merited and would be interested to see their long term nationwide plans. It would also be interesting to see a forecast of the very-long term effects on health of citizens in Beijing, Shanghai etc.

    [ said population density map: ]

  3. nrg1g11 February 5, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Related to this topic I found a very interesting article in the Seattle Times on entrepreneurs that are using the situation in China, deemed by some as a ‘crisis’ to create profit, turning ‘fresh air’ into a traded commodity.

    The International School of Beijing recently erected two eco-domes, large enough to cover 6 tennis courts each! These domes have meant that on days when fine particle air matter has reached 650 micrograms per cubic meter, those inside such domes have benefited from levels of just 25 micrograms. Of course, these do not come cheap, with those over 54000 square feet costing over $1 million (US).

    Whilst the government have been putting in place trail measures such as limiting car use, and forcing factories to close their doors in an attempt to stem the problem, no concrete governmental approach has yet been found. Whilst these heavy levels of pollution were recorded for many nation at the turn of the industrial revolution, comparative levels have not been seen in many of our lifetimes. The debate as to whether the Chinese government has an obligation to help those who cannot afford such luxury help is an ongoing one, however, for now at least the silver lining in this very polluted cloud seems to be internal consumer-driven growth for the Chinese economy.

    Full article:

  4. na8g10 February 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    The pollution levels in China are getting to the point where it is going to start crippling growth, so you’d expect the government will introduce more measures to decrease pollution sooner rather than later. The government have already realised this to some extent, “”We absolutely must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs,” said Mr Wen. “That will lead to production capacity gluts and deepening pressure on the environment and resources so that economic development will be unsustainable.”” (BBC, 2011). Nonetheless, this was a quote from 2011 and there have been no signs recently about it getting any better, so you’d have to question if they are doing enough.

    However, I think it’s also important to remember than China’s population is the highest in the world and is only increasing. This means more cars on the road, more demand for goods etc. “Coal-burning energy plants power the country’s factories, they provide the heat for hundreds of millions of homes, but they also spew out toxins into the air”, so the increasing population is going to make their job harder (BBC, 2013). This shows the kind of problems the government face and until they start increasing the use of different methods of generating energy, they’re going to have a problem decreasing the levels of pollution.

    So China’s pollution problem is something that is not easily solved. But with the pollution continuously getting worse and having major effects on health, you’d have to question why the government aren’t trying to do more to stem the increasingly bad pollution.


    • Zoe Skousbo February 7, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      The problem of pollution is China is one that is being increasingly recognised by its people as one of the greatest challenges for the modernising country. Increased awareness throughout Chinese society, from rural peasants to billionaires, is placing pressure on the government to curtail pollution and place regulations upon the booming industrial sector. Two Chinese cities- Linfen and Tianying, were recently named as the two most polluted cities in the world, with smog levels in other Chinese cities such as Beijing, vastly exceeding levels considered safe for humans who are forced to exist in an environment of toxicity that has already led to a huge increase in respiratory problems as well as a spike in cancer cases. As China grows economically, so too does its middle classes and this has led to a serious demand for cars. However, this rise in cars is being fronted as a scapegoat by government officials who are keen to shift the blame from the ever increasing amount of coal-fired power plants, construction projects and factories. The environmental damage is already substantial and any action by the government must be swift in order to prevent further irreparable damage to China’s rivers and diminishing eco system.

      Outcry over the issue is increasing but with the Chinese government planning to build yet more coal-fired power stations it may rest on an increasingly disgruntled population with greater access to social media to place pressure on the government in order to see greater recognition of the issue.


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