The new normal in Beijing is sending your kids to school wearing gas masks (about $60 each) and, for those who can afford it, stocking up on IQAir HealthPro indoor air filters (about $1,000 per room). Another newly sought-after product: pressurized canopies to cover school sports fields so schoolchildren can play outside. The polite term is “sports dome,” not “pollution dome,” and so far only elite private schools can afford them. There’s also a feisty millionaire entrepreneur, Chen Guangbiao, selling pressurized fresh air in a can, seemingly as much to make a statement as a profit: The air “flavors” include “pristine Tibetan” and “post-industrial Taiwan.” There’s little scientific proof, alas, of how well such coping mechanisms work.
While the fact of Beijing’s air pollution—as well as smog clouds over many other Chinese cities—is self-evident, the road to cleaning up is not. Comparisons are often made to the dirty old days of 1950s London or 1980s Los Angeles, and it’s useful to reflect that many Western cities have survived a grimy phase and largely recovered. Yet, as leading Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun points out, Beijing is facing a perfect storm: Rampant coal burning and factory smokestacks created London’s noxious “fog”; underregulated vehicle emissions cast a dark haze over Los Angeles. Today, Beijing is facing both problems at once, and with a population that’s still growing fast, increasing inputs to boot.
As the U.S. Energy Information Administration documented in a Jan. 29 report, China now burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Its coal consumption has tripled in a decade and continues to rise steeply. About half of that coal is used in large power plants—where emissions are increasingly better regulated—but the remaining half is burned in small and difficult-to-oversee facilities, including individual households. One factor contributing to last month’s “smogapocalypse” in Beijing was the weather: It happened to be one of northern China’s coldest winters in three decades, and while central Beijing has converted to natural gas heating, outside the city many families still burn coal.
Unlike coastal Shanghai, which at least experiences occasional sea breezes, and southern Shenzhen, where it’s too warm for much coal burning, Beijing’s geography works distinctly against it—it’s basically a bowl that traps pollution blown in from surrounding areas. As Deborah Seligsohn, a researcher at University of California at San Diego and member of World Resources Institute’s ChinaFAQs network, explains, Beijing’s pollution comes from a “six-province air shed.”
The role of vehicle emissions has lately also drawn increasing attention, including from a newly emboldened Chinese media that in January finally scrapped the euphemism “fog” to call pollution what it is. On Jan. 23, Shanghai Securities News reported in a headline, “high sulfur in petroleum exceeds by 15 times levels in Europe.” Depending on where measurements are taken, vehicle emissions can contribute from a quarter to a half of “fine” pollution particles—those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (called PM 2.5)—in Chinese cities.
What we do know for sure, says Vance Wagner, a senior researcher at the U.S.-based International Council on Clean Transportation and former staffer at China’s national vehicle emission policy research center in Beijing, is that with an estimated 20 million new cars expected to hit the road in 2013, “vehicles are a large and growing contributor to pollution—and putting more stringent fuel-quality controls in place nationwide is the only way Beijing air quality can improve and eventually reach an international standard.”
In the U.S., fuel standards and tailpipe emissions are regulated in tandem by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is important because the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies to cars as well. That is, filtration devices on cars and trucks can only work optimally if the fuel itself is sufficiently pure. Says Seligsohn: “If you have fancy vehicles with better pollution-abatement equipment, they need better fuel.”
In China, the environmental ministry regulates tailpipe emissions, but both gasoline and diesel standards are set by a special committee largely comprised of representatives from the country’s leading domestic oil companies, PetroChina (PTR) and Sinopec (SNP). “It’s the key regulatory bottleneck,” explains Wagner. “Imagine if fuel standards in the United States were set by ExxonMobil (XOM).” Indeed, an earlier draft of Chinese fuel standards released online requested that public comment be sent to an “@sinopec” e-mail account.
China’s nationwide standards limit sulfur content to 150 parts per million (ppm) for gasoline and 350 ppm for diesel. The standard in Europe, by contrast, is 10 ppm for gasoline. Ironically, the city of Beijing has issued significantly more stringent standards for fuel sold within city limits. Unfortunately its efforts can’t control cars and trucks that fuel up outside the city. And large diesel trucks—such as those used on most long-distance trucking routes—comprise only about 5 percent of China’s total vehicle fleet but emit an estimated 60 percent of total particulate matter from vehicles.
The upshot is that controlling urban pollution in China requires national action, including on fuel standards. On Jan. 27, following several days of thick smog, Beijing announced that it would again raise its standard for tailpipe emissions. While that’s a positive sign, it’s also true that the national environmental ministry’s efforts to pass more stringent countrywide tailpipe standards for diesel trucks—which Wagner says “would cut particulate matter by 80 percent from new trucks and buses”—have been stalled for two and half years because adequately refined diesel fuel is not nationally available.
With mounting public attention, Sinopec President Fu Chengyu told local reporters in Beijing on Jan. 31 that China’s leading oil companies did bear some responsibility for the smog, but not because they failed to comply with standards—but because China’s standards weren’t high enough.
“Recently, Sinopec has been coming out and ‘pledging’ to reduce sulfur levels by the end of this year,” says Wagner. “But it’s unclear if they are talking about gasoline or diesel. There’s already a gasoline standard for reducing nationwide sulfur to 50 ppm by the end of this year—so that’s not news. If they are talking about diesel, that’s news.”