Living with Air Pollution in a Chinese Megacity

By Cerian Foulkes, Communications and Programme Manager, RCUK China.

AQI, PM2.5, 3M N93. For Beijing residents, these are the everyday terms we use to navigate the smog that engulfs our city. Early last week, as Beijing’s pollution reached ‘Beyond Index’ levels not seen since early 2013, daily chatter moved away from Christmas holiday plans to comparing the effectiveness of our air purifiers.

Putting AQI into context, Beijing US Embassy Air Quality and Pollution Measurement website.

Putting AQI into context, Beijing US Embassy Air Quality and Pollution Measurement website.

Understanding Air Quality Index (AQI) tables is a relatively new challenge for both Chinese and foreigners living in this megacity, as is forecasting which weather changes will bring us blue skies again. The 1st December this year was one of the most polluted to date with official figures measuring the AQI as more than 600 PM2.5 (Particulate Matter up to 2.5 micrometers in size) and office rumours had it at over 1000, both figures well into the ‘Hazardous’ range. For 24 hours it felt like we were living in a dystopia rather than the political centre of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Anticipation grew as our working day came to an end and someone announced that the evening would bring north westerly winds to finally chase the choking air away. As forecast, on 2nd December we awoke to a mere 25 AQI, which according to the Beijing US Embassy is ‘Good’, and we knew that for at least a few days we could put our 3M N93 masks aside and breathe easy.

Maggie from RCUK China team stands outside the British Embassy in Beijing, taken at 2pm on 1st and 2nd December.

Maggie from RCUK China team stands outside the British Embassy in Beijing, taken at 2pm on 1st and 2nd December.

Over the same two days, in another major capital some 8,000km away, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with world leaders for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, ‘to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate’. As one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas, China plays a pivotal role in climate change mitigation. However as President Xi states “Addressing climate change should not deny the legitimate needs of developing countries to reduce poverty and improve living standards” it is clear that further research is required to ensure development is not at the expense of urban environments and population health.

While the average Beijing citizen is focused on adapting our everyday habits to life under a blanket of PM2.5, working in the RCUK China office we are able to celebrate the progress being made to find long-term solutions. Just last week it was announced that five projects are being funded by the UK-China joint programme Atmospheric Pollution and Human Health in a Chinese Megacity (see link for full list of projects). With support from our team, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Natural Sciences Foundation of China (NSFC) have come together to support these four-year bilateral, interdisciplinary projects that will provide insight into the sources, processes and impacts of urban air pollution. Part of the NERC funds and all of the MRC funds for this programme is from the Newton Fund, part of the UK Government’s official development assistance.

Beijing, along with Dehli and others, are often described as some the most polluted cities in the world and these new research partnerships are a major step to providing new knowledge to solve this challenge. In addition to this call in China, NERC and MRC have also recently launched a separate call into Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in an Indian Megacity to continue understanding this global development problem. As the population continues to rapidly urbanise in China, India and across the rest of the world, efforts made to understand and solve severe air pollution will no doubt benefit millions of lives.

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