China leads regional fight to improve air quality

China Daily | February 23, 2024


Buildings are shrouded in heavy, yellow smog and there is a smell in the air most likely generated by burning coal and biomass fuels.

Chu Yangxi, an associate research professor at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, remembers similar scenes in Beijing about a decade ago, which have since faded into memory.

He witnessed these pollution problems again when he was in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's Punjab Province, with two other Chinese environmental experts from Jan 14 to 17.

Local authorities invited the trio to Lahore in the hope o learning from China's successful efforts to restore clean air and blue skies over Beijing in only a decade.

Chu had previously participated in international exchange programs on air quality management. However, the trip to Pakistan was different.

"It was my first time visiting a country involved in the Belt and Road Initiative for an activity in which I'm in a position to provide scientific and technological support," he said.

China has received an increasing number of requests from developing countries to learn from the country's experiences in improving air quality, as they themselves enter a development stage China has already undergone.

What makes China's efforts appealing to them is that the country has seen its air quality improve while it has expanded its economy at a similar pace, experts said.

The different strategies deployed to control air pollution, which take into account complex national conditions, also make China a good exemplar of air quality management solutions, they said.

Sharing ideas

In November, Chinese experts were asked to speak about the country's air pollution control efforts with senior officials in Punjab via an online meeting. However, the Punjab government was still eager to arrange a field visit for them for more exchanges, Chu said.

During their stay in Pakistan, the Chinese team had exchanges with nine departments and visited industrial enterprises. They also met Mohsin Raza Naqvi, Punjab's caretaker chief minister.

Chu said Punjab has great potential to tap end-of-pipe pollution control, an approach that concentrates on effluent treatment or filtration before waste discharges into the environment. The province, for example, has not yet taken adequate measures to control sulfur dioxide emissions, Chu said.

In another example of a fruitful exchange, the research academy was visited by a group of 85 military officers from across the globe on Jan 19 who were visiting China to take part in a workshop. Zhang Mengheng, director of CRAES' International Cooperation Center, said one of the topics that interested the officers the most was Beijing's air quality management.

"Some officers said they had heard a lot about the severe air pollution in Beijing before they came to the capital city," she recalled. "They said it was beyond their expectations when they saw blue skies instead of smog and they were curious about how China managed to make this happen."

The session at the academy was scheduled to run for two hours but was extended by 30 minutes as officers kept raising questions, Zhang said. Many of the officers asked for copies of the PowerPoint presentation the academy had prepared for a lecture, which focused on China's practices and progress in environmental protection.

"China's experiences can provide useful references for other developing countries as they are at a development stage China has just gone through," Zhang said.

She added that China's experiences should be localized in other developing nations so they cater to the actual needs and conditions of those countries.

However, Zhang also believes it's relatively easy for Chinese scientists to localize the nation's solutions on air pollution control in other countries given their vast experience in coping with the problem.

"While promoting the Beautiful China Initiative, China has also called for building a global community of shared future. So we are willing to share our experiences with the international community," she said.

Alliance suggested

Rajendra Shende, the founder director of the India-based Green TERRE Foundation, said in an interview with China Daily: "In a bid to make speedy progress in economic development, every emerging country faces the problem of air pollution due to the burning of fossil fuel."

He said China, India and other emerging economies in South Asia should establish an alliance to combat climate change and air pollution and share the lessons they have learned.

Wang Shuxiao, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Environment, said there is high demand from the Global South to learn from China's knowledge on curbing air pollution.

She helped prepare "The Air Pollution in Asia Pacific: Science-based Solutions" report for the United Nations Environment Programme, and since 2015 has collaborated on air quality management with India, the Philippines and Thailand.

The professor has seen many experts and officials from other nations come to China to learn about the country's air quality management experiences.

Wang said a major attraction of the Chinese approach was that "the country has seen rapid air quality improvement, while simultaneously its economy has kept growing at almost the same pace".

Instead of following a one-size-fits-all approach, regions have rolled out different measures based on their local circumstances, she said.

Many developing countries may still be able to find air pollution control strategies in China that will also meet some of their needs despite having different national conditions, Wang said.

What amazes other developing nations is that China has seen significant development in technologies for air quality management, which have provided solid support for the government in its drafting of air quality policies and upgrading standards, she said.

China now leads the world in developing high-resolution emission inventories and the technology for source apportionment — the practice of deriving information about pollution sources and the amount they contribute to ambient air pollution levels. In addition, China has also made great progress in air quality forecasting technologies and integrated assessment modeling.

Challenges ahead

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish group, said that while China still has a lot of work to do to reach good air quality across the entire country, the exceptionally rapid progress made over the past decade offered important lessons that applied to most regions struggling with air pollution.

"China substantially strengthened the emissions standards for power plants and industry," he said. "This has made a major difference in air quality over the past decade."

"Most developing countries have weak emissions standards that allow more than 10 times as much emissions from power plants and industrial plants as China's current standards," he added.

To implement stronger standards China had to improve emissions monitoring and enforcement to ensure companies comply. This is an area severely lacking in most developing countries, Myllyvirta added.

Zhang Hongliang, a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, Fudan University, said developing nations should not forge ahead with air pollution control measures without first considering the costs and potential impact on people's livelihoods.

While this is never easy, China's success has set an example for countries in the Global South on how to address air pollution in a comparatively short period of time.

"US and European countries took about half a century to resolve their air pollution problems. Many people hold that the process may last for a century in China, considering that the country was confronted with a much worse air pollution situation," he said.

However, China's experience has proved that "if they are determined to address the problem, they can also make it in 30 to 50 years or even a shorter period", he said.

Zhang, who initiated a China-India Association of Atmospheric Scientists in 2018, said air pollution is a problem that nobody is immune from, therefore, both the political elites and the public in developing nations should be willing to address the issue.

However, developing nations' governments still need to draw a clear picture of the measures they plan to introduce and how much they will cost.

"A key issue for developing nations is that they need to strike a balance between economic development and pollution control," he said, adding they need to ensure people's livelihoods will not be significantly affected by their air pollution campaigns.

Muhammad Zamir Assadi, a Pakistani political analyst and an editor with Internews Pakistan based in Islamabad, said he is impressed by the steps China has taken to improve air quality, including efforts to control the capacity in smokestack industries, such as iron and steel, and to promote new energy development.

Pakistan is looking forward to support from China to remove contaminants and pollutants so people can breathe clean air, Assadi stated.

He also said there is great potential for China to cooperate with other developing nations on tackling climate change.

"China, being a developing country, has had good success in tackling climate issues, so this experience can also be shared with the developing countries like Pakistan who are facing serious climate issues," he said, adding China's climate change solutions are practical and also recognized by the international community.