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The Great Smog of Guangzhou

The residents of China’s Pearl River delta suffer serious air pollution every day. But, writes Tang Hao, few understand how near they are to potential disaster. To alleviate the situation, he adds, monitoring standards must be improved.
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Smog is becoming an ever more frequent feature of Guangzhou’s weather, and levels of particulate matter in the air are increasing too. As a result, more people are suffering the symptoms of respiratory diseases, which include shortness of breath, coughs, dizziness, weakness, nausea and even the loss of temper. But since the situation seemingly presents no immediate threat to life, it is easy to ignore. 

But as the situation worsens, that may change. In early April the Southern Weekend newspaper carried a report about China’s worsening air pollution, which warned that London’s Great Smog may be repeated in Guangzhou. The Great Smog of December 1952 is famous as the world’s worst case of air pollution. In only five days more than 4,000 people in the British capital died from respiratory illnesses, many of them elderly people. In the following months a further 8,000 died. As early as the end of 2004, Tang Xiaoyan, a professor at the Peking University College of Environmental Science, made similar predictions based on his research: that a severe photochemical smog could arise in Guangzhou – or even across the entire Pearl River delta.

In fact, the air in the Pearl River delta has already been severely polluted by the manufacturing industry: air quality levels already fall to levels seen in London in 1952. The city of Shenzhen saw a record-breaking 226 days of smog in 2007. Smog is spreading across whole regions: in the urban areas around the Pearl River delta and around the whole Beijing and Tianjin metropolitan area. These cities are the main source of pollution and they also suffer from it the most. In 2006 only 4.3% of China’s 559 cities reached Class I air quality (the cleanest level), 58.1% averaged in Class II, 28.5% at Class III and the remaining 9.1% at even lower levels.

Almost every city in the Pearl River delta suffers from smog all year round. And as the provincial government attempts to shift the worst polluters out of the area, the problem only moves to the provinces of Jiangxi, Hunan and the northern part of Guangdong. I recently visited Qingxin, a county in central Guangzhou, which used to be renowned for its clean air, but now faces pollution from industries relocated from the Pearl River delta. Industrial output has been increasing every year, with many factories sprouting up in its still-expanding industrial zones. Economically, it has been a great success, but the damage to air quality is easy to see on your windscreen as the rain dries and leaves dirty grey marks.

Urban air pollution is a major threat to public health in China. Smog is made up of the soot and dust in the polluted air above our cities; it is a complex mix of hundreds of different types of particulate matter. Those most harmful to human health are tiny aerosol particles: minerals, salt, sulphates and nitrates that lodge in the lungs and breathing passages, giving rise to rhinitis and bronchitis – and cancer in the long term. Outdoor air pollution kills around 300,000 people in China every year, according to research in 2003 by Wang Jinnan, of the China Environmental Planning Institute. The country’s city dwellers have become like vacuum cleaners, each one of us filtering out the particulates from 15 cubic metres of air a day. The difference in air quality is striking to anyone who travels overseas.

Many are unaware of the risks and fail to connect their health problems with air pollution. But the public do not only suffer from the pollution, they also produce it. Surveys indicate that sources of urban air pollution are changing in the Pearl River delta; vehicle emissions are becoming the main culprit and may even exceed emissions from industry. In 2007 there were 1.8 million cars on Guangzhou’s roads and this number is growing by 150,000 every year. We are facing a gradual, yet potentially fatal, process that is reaching a tipping point: the conditions for air pollution to become very acute are already in place. Guangzhou’s unique climate has so far protected the city, but if things continue, a disaster is almost inevitable.

An environmental crisis is not like other emergencies. An isolated pollution accident or an explosion, for instance, occurs suddenly and can be dealt with quickly. An environmental crisis gathers form gradually on a large scale; once formed, it is hard to solve quickly. It is not a temporary problem, but something we have to live with every day. Therefore, we do not only need emergency measures, but also changes in our everyday life. We need laws that require local governments to control polluting industries, and measures to prevent air pollution in cities. Most importantly, we must find a way to alleviate a long-term crisis.

China’s government, businesses and people are not paying enough attention to the risks of a large-scale environmental disaster. When it is clear that polluters are not going to change their ways, the government should intervene. However, the gravity of the situation we face today can partly be blamed on government failures. For example, the very scale used to measure atmospheric pollution fails to reflect actual conditions. China’s environment authorities recognise a yearly average of 100 milligrams of particulate matter per cubic metre of air as a safe standard, five times the World Health Organization’s standard. They also do not measure particles over 2.5 nanometres in diameter, despite the fact they are the most toxic. There are huge differences between what the official data shows and what the public experiences. The law does not enforce environmental rulings and solve disputes as it should. Where in other countries the courts would handle environmental issues, in China the government takes control, which is far less efficient. The power of the public and civil society is weak; the right to be informed on environmental issues is not secure.

Of course, the system has also seen progress. For example, Guangzhou has been the first city to implement a smog forecasting system and many other cities are following suit. But scientists and the government must change China’s monitoring standards and make the results public. There are historical reasons for urban pollution in China’s cities, but we still have time to make a change and prevent chronic problems becoming an acute crisis. The clock is ticking.

Tang Hao is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



long-term effect of education

Besides legislation, people's attitude and awareness is the most decisive factor to solve environmental problems in the long term. Legislation on the environment has a short-term effect, and the most economic and effective approach is educate people to adopt green lifestyles gradually.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



solution lag-time

As air pollution is a long term health risk, it seems that saying there is still time to correct the air pollution could be being optimistic. Not saying that something doesn't need to be done about it immediately, but people who have been living with these conditions for years are certainly threatened with the health risks now, and will still feel the effects of the poor air quality even if something is done about it. Once the government actually takes enough action to correct the situation, the benefits will not show immediately. People in these areas will still suffer from lung and heart conditions for years afterwards. If the government waits for the pollution to start clearly and obviously affecting the people, these problems will last for a generation.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Zoe Lee

Foul weather in Guangzhou

I am a graduate student in Guangzhou, feeling really uncomfortable in the foul weather here. My hometown Zhaoqing is also suffering from smog and foul weather.

Sunshine has become a luxury in the Pearl River delta. Zoe Lee

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




More Power to Ministry

I believe that the Ministry of Environmental Protection needs more power and funding. If they could make binding rules and enforce them from the top instead of delegating authority to lower levels, I believe better progress would be made. This problem is complicated; it is not unlike the Environmental Protection Agency's desire not to monitor certain issues here in the U.S. But I think we can all agree that each country needs to do their part, both for their own future and for the future of all nations. If this means sacrifices for the common good, I think all of us should be ready and willing.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国的平民正在遭受一场空气悲哀。珍珠三角洲附近的空气已经达到了所能符合的污染水平。工厂只担心经济利益而忽略了直接的环境影响。同时,富裕人群使用的汽车增加了污染危害。这些极少数的由工厂得利的人正在以增加污染的方式对更多的人造成伤害。中国政府需要采取措施恩威并重的方式以降低污染量。空气是人们的共同资源,但是个别人士为了个人利益不惜破坏我们的环境。CU Deetz

Tragedy of the Commons

China is experiencing a tragedy of the commons in air. The air around the Pearl Delta river has reached its carrying capacity for pollution. Factories seem too concerned with economic profits to worry about the direct environmental cause. Also, individuals who are being blessed with more economic gain are adding to the pollution by increasing their use of cars. The few individuals that really benefit from these factories are hurting the many from the pollution. The Chinese government needs to provide incentives as well as deterrents to slow down the production of pollution. Air is a common resource, but a few individuals are ruining it for an extremely large group.
CU Deetz

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Clean Air & Water

Now is the time to invest in companies that deliver clean air and water. Kurita from Japan, BioTreat and Sinomem from Singapore, General Electric and Veolia, and so on. We can do it!!!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我不认为技术,政府或是企业能解决这个问题,而在于我们每个个人。像Tang Hao所说,我们已经没有时间可以浪费了。目前为止我听到的最好的办法来自于诺贝尔奖获得者Rajendra Pachauri。有别于其他方法,他的是强有力的,允许每个人参与,而且不需要我们等待那些拥有权力而缺少动机的上层人物的决定。这个办法就是:1、素食。2、使用自行车。3、不买不需要的东西。(该陈述的连接及更多的该观点的科学性的相关信息可以从以下网址获得:http://vegansocialclub.com/?p=43) Tang Hao,请阅读该连接的相关资料,渴望看到你的评论。Christopher Barden [email protected]

Pachauri's Advice: Don't Eat Meat

I believe neither technology nor governments nor corporations will solve this problem.

Only individual people can. And, as Tang Hao says, we do not have much time left to act.

So far, the best solution I've heard yet comes from Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Rajendra Pachauri. Unlike most other solutions, Dr. Pachauri's solution is powerful, allows anyone to participate, and doesn't require we wait for those "above us" with more power but less motivation.

The solution is this: 1) Don't Eat Meat. 2) Ride a Bike. 3) Don't Buy Things You Don't Need. (For links to his statement and more information about the science behind this idea, please see the post at: http://vegansocialclub.com/?p=43) Tang Hao, please read some of the sources listed at this link. I'd be interested to hear your opinions on this.

Christopher Barden
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



stop GDP worship

If guys like me who would like to forgo the economic growth brought up by industrialization and lessen the damage to the environment one day sat down together with those GDP worshippers, who the hell could have a sway over the policy-makers?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



GDP worship

Of course China needs to be concerned about it's air. China also has 1.2B people to feed, clothe and house. That is and should be the number one item on their agenda.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




If many people die from pollution,
there will be less than 1.2B people
to feed, clothe and house. This can
be seen as inhumanely or as patriotic
act. Sacrifing one's life for the
riches. How many died in oder to
produce steel in backyard furnaces ?