Air quality in Jing-jin-ji

Posted by Mark Broomfield, Consultant on 9 March 2017

Dr Mark Broomfield reports back from the “Greater Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) Regional Air Pollution Control International Workshop” held in Beijing, China on 1 & 2 March 2017.

“We apologise for the lack of air pollution.” This was the slightly surprising greeting I received when I arrived in Beijing last week. I was there to contribute to the “Greater BTH Regional Air Pollution Control International Workshop” where I was supporting the organisers, the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The “BTH” in question refers to the Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, plus Hebei province – a densely populated low-lying area in northern China. “Greater” refers to the additional surrounding provinces of Henan, Shandong, Shanxi and Liaoning; and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. To give you an idea of scale, the urban area that makes up the inner BTH megacity (known as “Jing-jin-ji”) has a population of around 130 million people crammed into an area the size of England and Scotland combined.

Greater BTH has an air pollution problem. The ADB estimates that exposure to high levels of PM2.5 (fine particles in the atmosphere, which are a hazard to health because of their small size and ability to penetrate deep into our lungs) contributes to about 1 million premature deaths annually in the People's Republic of China. A disproportionately large number of these are in the BTH region. One of the key sources – though by no means the only one –is the extent of coal burning in the region. If Jing-jin-ji were a country, it would be ranked fourth on the list of coal burning countries, coming in behind only India, the US and, of course, China. Other key sources of pollution include road traffic, long-range transport from other regions and countries, ammonia from agriculture, construction dust and emissions arising from natural sources.

When I arrived in Beijing on 28 February 2017, air pollution levels were fairly low thanks mainly to some brisk winds which, as well as reducing the pollution concentrations, did a good job of whipping up some decent waves on Lake Kunming at the remarkable Summer Palace. Over the next few days, normal service was resumed, with PM2.5 levels increasing to well over 100 µg/m3 by the time the conference ended. That’s more than double the highest daily levels we ever tend to see in a year in London, three times China’s own annual mean air quality standard and ten times the World Health Organisations Guideline value set for the protection of human health.

The residents of Beijing are very switched on to the subject of air pollution. Even though air pollution has been on an improving trend for some time, people are becoming more and more vocal in their desire to enjoy a clean and healthy atmosphere, alongside other improvements in the quality of life. The premature deaths caused by air pollution in China are estimated by ADB to represent an annual cost of approximately 7.5% of the country’s gross domestic product. So air pollution is a health issue, a quality of life issue, and an economic issue.

Ricardo Energy & Environment has the opportunity to play a leading part in finding solutions to these problems – working with local policy makers and the ADB to address what has become one of the biggest and most urgent problems facing the world today.