No doubt, eastern China has a problem with air pollution. Last month’s smog episode was noticeable well south of the main industrial regions of Hebei Province and the capital, Beijing.
The gray haze that enveloped my temporary home in Wuhu (Anhui Province) made me grateful for the rain that comes regularly. It helps wash the particles out of the air and removes the morning smell of smoke.
But progress is at hand. Last week, China Daily reported praise from the United Nations for the country’s ongoing effort to clear the air. Norwegian politician Erik Solheim has long-term experience in environmental matters, and he is currently executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
He complimented the People’s Republic “for taking a leading role in expanding renewable energy like wind power and reducing coal consumption.” Several dozen wind generators lining hilltops just south of Nanjing are clear proof of that effort, as I had opportunity to observe. “More environmental ambition from China. New clean air goal for 338 cities will make them healthier & more liveable,” Solheim wrote on Twitter.
Earlier this year, the May 2016 UNEP report titled “Actions on Air Quality” quoted a 78 percent decrease of airborne sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, and a 24 percent drop in nitrogen oxides.
Industrial combustion, especially power production, and road traffic are the major producers of nitrogen oxides. These gases are a lung irritant, connected to bronchitis and accompanying problems with cough and phlegm.
People suffering from asthma are especially affected because the pollutants decrease lung function. When there’s an annoying, pungent smell in the air, it usually comes from sulfur dioxide. That’s a byproduct of fuel combustion and harms respiratory function in similar ways as the oxides of nitrogen do.
In China, a push to reduce coal consumption is accompanied by expansion of public transport systems. Megacity Hefei (7.5 million, located in Anhui Province) will have an underground metro train system opening next year. I found the pace of construction impressive there.
The subways are certain to help reduce the huge number of cars currently in city streets. Farther north in Beijing, the population grew by 70 percent, along with a 77 percent increase in energy consumption between 1998 and 2013, according to China News. This makes a measurable drop in air pollutants a great success that’s “valuable for the other parts of the world,” Solheim said.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays.