The Effects of Globalization on Air Pollution in China’s Largest Cities

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Although there is a growing body of literature on the future effects of extreme temperatures on public health, predictive changes in future health outcomes associated with climate warming remain challenging and under-explored, especially in developing countries.

This paper shall focus on the climate change data itself, pollution and its’ impact on health in China, particularly on mortality rates; the proposed proactive and reactive solutions already in place, going off of China’s proposals and summits. Within the last 30 years, China has rapidly developed into a major global power. Arguably the world's most important manufacturer and industrial producer; China has become the world's largest exporter and the second largest importer, with the fastest-growing consumer market. China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution.

“China’s current environmental situation is the result not only of policy choices made today but also of attitudes, approaches, and institutions that have evolved over centuries,” succinctly E. C. Economy sums the situation up in her book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. This rapid industrialization is predominantly dependent on coal for energy. Coal itself is an important industry in China, directly employing around 4 million people. In China, about two-thirds of its productivity comes from the coal industry. For the past 50 years, coal has been the main source of fuel and electrical power in China, powering approximately 70 percent of her homes. Coal consumption in particular, is the lead contributor to global climate change and one of the most polluting fuel sources. China has more coal-fired power plants than any other country in the world, about 40 percent of the global total. The high number of coal-fired power plants, often with low efficiency and low environmental standards, can be seen as a strong driver of major air quality problems in vast urban conglomerations, especially in China’s developed east. The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an immediate threat to the health of China's citizens, contributing to about 400, 000 premature deaths a year. The largest benefits would accrue from reducing the number of deaths from strokes, ischaemic heart disease, and lung disease.

Historically, a combination of lax pollution policies and an over-dependence on fossil fuels has resulted in heavy pollution in and around populated areas, as well as the continued depletion of China’s natural resources. Smog over China has doubled in recent years, enveloping large areas of the populated east. In recent studies, even with the recent cutbacks to coal emissions of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide pollutants, climate change has affected the duration and intensity of air, water, and soil pollution. It is an uncomfortable situation for any country to be in, this rock and a hard place position between favourable economic development powered by fossil fuel use, and alarmingly high levels of pollution harming her citizens’ physical/mental well-being and polluting the physical countryside itself. Let alone a developing nation that is poised to make incredible ripples on technology, construction, energy, education, and so much more, on a global level. The rapid development of China, regardless of socio-political pressures is nothing short of astounding, unfortunately the pollution marrying both urban and rural settings really forces the individual to think, ‘is progress still progress if it is self-destructive?’

Smog in China in recent years has become a subject of outcry, due to the discrepancy between standard air quality measures delivered to the masses and actual dangerous particulate matter levels that have not been accounted for by official quality-testers. Particulate matter having a diameter of 2.5 microns or less is commonly referred to as PM2.5. Particulate matter 10 (PM10) measures one-seventh of a person's width, so one can imagine how small PM2.5 is. PM2.5 consists of metals, allergens, nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, soil and dust, which are derived from combustion products, fireplace smoke, construction site dust and agricultural activities. Due to weather, temperature and inversion, PM2.5 levels are usually higher in winter. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) PM2.5 standard stipulates that the average daily PM2.5 level should not exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter, while the annual average PM2.5 level should not exceed 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in China would, on average, cause about 20,?000 fewer deaths per year in 2030, and about 370, 000 fewer annual deaths in 2050. Statistically, the average annual PM2.5 air pollution levels between 2008 and 2017 was 84.97. This exceeds the EPA standard by 49.97 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2013, there was on average about 100.76 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic meter to be found in the air in Beijing, China.

The graphs below will demonstrate the average monthly temperature and rainfall for mainland China between a specific set of dates. The X-axis has the months of the year listed chronologically from left to right, starting with January and ending with December. The primary Y-axis shows Rainfall amounts, beginning with 0 (mm), middling at 60 (mm), and topping off at 120 (mm). The secondary Y-axis has Temperature recorded in ( °C), beginning with -16 °C, middling at 16 °C, and topping off at 48 °C.

The image below shows the average monthly temperature and rainfall data in China from 1901 to 1930. For January, the average recorded temperature was -8.9 °C and average rainfall was 10.2 mm. February had an average recorded temperature of -6.2 °C and an average rainfall of 14.3 mm. March had an average recorded temperature of -0.1 °C and an average rainfall of 25.7 mm. April had an average recorded temperature of 7.2 °C and an average rainfall of 39.8 mm. May had an average recorded temperature of 12.8 °C and an average rainfall of 59.4 mm. June had an average recorded temperature of 17 °C and an average rainfall of 89.6 mm. July had an average recorded temperature of 19.4 °C and an average rainfall of 107.1 mm. August had an average recorded temperature of 18.5 °C and an average rainfall of 97.9 mm. September had an average recorded temperature of 13.9 °C and an average rainfall of 61.4 mm. October had an average recorded temperature of 7.3 °C and an average rainfall of 32.8 mm. November had an average recorded temperature of -0.9 °C and an average rainfall of 17.1 mm. December had an average recorded temperature of -7.2 °C and an average rainfall of 10.3 mm.

Average Monthly Temperature and Rainfall for China from 1901-1930

The graph below shows the average monthly temperature and rainfall data in China from 1991 to 2015. For January, the average recorded temperature was -7.9 °C and average rainfall was 12 mm, this is a full degree lower than its 1901-1930 temperature counterpart, and approximately 1.8 mm more rainfall than in previous years. February had an average recorded temperature of -4.3 °C (nearly 2 degrees lower than previous data) and an average rainfall of 15 mm (nearly one mm more than above). The trend continues onwards with March having an average recorded temperature of 1.5 °C (compared to 0.1°C) and an average rainfall of 26.6 mm (compared to 25.7 mm). April had an average recorded temperature of 8.5 °C and an average rainfall of 39.7 mm. May had an average recorded temperature of 13.6 °C and an average rainfall of 62.1 mm. June had an average recorded temperature of 17.8°C and an average rainfall of 95.6 mm. July had an average recorded temperature of 19.9 °C and an average rainfall of 110.6 mm. August had an average recorded temperature of 18.8 °C and an average rainfall of 96.6 mm. September had an average recorded temperature of 14.4 °C and an average rainfall of 56.6 mm. October had an average recorded temperature of 7.8 °C and an average rainfall of 31.3 mm. November had an average recorded temperature of 0.2 °C and an average rainfall of 18.5 mm. December had an average recorded temperature of -6 °C and an average rainfall of 11.6 mm.

Average Monthly Temperature and Rainfall for China from 1991 to 2015

It is important to assess how the climate has changed in the past and shall continue to change in the future. Monthly average historical rainfall and temperature data can be plotted to show the baseline climate and seasonality for each month, year, and rainfall and temperature. The data sets above were produced by the University of East Anglia (UEA) Climate Research Unit (CRU). Averaged out, the overall temperature of mainland China has permanently increased 1.1°C, and rainfall has increased .88 mm, which may sound an insignificant amount. The trends we can see as each year passes, the averages between those two graphs show an increase in both temperature (climate change due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gas buildup) and rainfall (climate change due to interruptions and intensities in the water cycle) over time. Climate change can mean an increase in rain for some, and none at all for others; such as, over the past 50 years, a drying trend was observed in the Yellow River Basin and North China Plain. Anthropogenic climate change has led to an overall decrease in total monsoon rainfall over the past 65 years and an increased number of dry days.

Conversely climate change can cause droughts and deluges in one fell swoop. How is this possible? A study concluded that “about 60% of the rain and snow falling on land comes from the ocean's water, and another 40% of the rain is ‘circulating’ on the mainland (Keys, Wang-Erlandsson, & Gordon, 2016).” Most of China's rain and snow come from the evaporation of Eurasia. As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture. The intensity of the storm (and therefore the risk of flooding) depends in part on how much water the air can hold at a given time. As the world warms, the ocean's evaporation rate is increasing. Think about heating cauldron water on the stove - the higher the dial, the faster the water evaporates. Almost the same thing happens on Earth, and on a global scale, this higher evaporation rate leads to more extreme rain and drought events. Over the past 30 years, the sea level and sea surface temperature have increased 90 millimeters (mm) and 0.9 degree Celsius, respectively.

Impacts of climate change are wide ranging, with global climate scientists holding different views on the nature of climate change risk. Extreme weather, increased losses from floods and storms, rising sea levels, food shortages, severe water shortages, increased deaths and diseases, reduced monetary assets, and limits on energy use are all consequences of climate change. These include health risks from nuclear power generation and carbon capture alongside storage, crop yields, acid deposition, macroeconomic shocks, fuel poverty and geopolitical conflicts. Agro-ecosystems, water resources, wetland ecosystems, forest ecosystems, human health, and energy sectors are also at risk. The US Climate and Health Assessment identifies seven categories of climate change impacts on health, including increased morbidity and mortality due to extreme temperature increases; temporary reductions in air quality due to smoke and smoke; increased extreme weather and climate events; and increased media transmission Diseases; increased water-related diseases; reduced food safety, nutrition and distribution; and mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and substance use. While anyone's health can be harmed by climate change, some people's risks are greatly increased, including young children, pregnant women, the elderly, chronic diseases and people with disabilities, outdoor workers and people with fewer resources.

Global warming, climate change, whatever you choose to call it, has to-date had a major impact on and in China, including increased drought and flooding, (threatening China's already fragile food and water supply), and sea level rise that could affect millions of people in Shanghai, not to mention other densely populated coastal cities. Air pollution contributes to an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths in China annually. Pollution has also been linked to the proliferation of acute and chronic diseases; estimates suggest that around 11 percent of digestive-system cancers in China may stem from unsafe drinking water. Soil pollution is not to be taken lightly either; China’s chemical and fertilizer industries have been poorly managed for decades, and the soil still stores waste dumped over the years. The NDRC has yet to take action to tackle agricultural pollution, including the contamination of farmland by heavy metals, with 3.33 million hectares (8 million acres) believed to be too polluted to grow crops. Agricultural pollution by way of soil toxicity is perhaps one of the most neglected threats to Chinese public health. The three most common metallic toxins found in around 40% of polluted soil, in and around industrial areas and farmland are: lead, arsenic, and cadmium.Wastewater and industrial wastewater are increasingly used because there is not enough fresh water available.

In northern China, per capita water consumption is less than in Saudi Arabia, so farmers can use any water available. Air and water pollution are reversible, the two elements tend to bounce back rather quickly, so long as you quit harmful pollutant behaviour, then allow plants to photosynthesize and remove dangerous carbon and nitrogen buildup. Soil however, like deep roots, has a long memory and toxins can remain beneath the surface for centuries, if not longer. Toxins are expensive to remove, and within that centuries’ timeframe, the farmland is intractable and poses a danger to human and other animal life with the spread of toxins by flooding among other concerns. As of yet, there has not been a nationwide health survey to track the effect of soil contamination, and potentially hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens are living on or around contaminated soil, soaking in a cocktail of pollutants that if ingested, cannot be excreted from the body by the liver and kidneys, accumulate causing joint and bone disease, and sometimes cancer.

In 2007, China laid out her roadmap to battle the ill effects of climate change and pollution in China’s National Climate Change Program. Gilley names a number of examples of the authoritarian character of the Chinese approach to environmental challenges, among them, typical command-and-control approaches such as excluding polluting enterprises from receiving state bank loans, directly shutting installations down, and enacting intentional power cuts to achieve energy reduction targets (Gilley, 2012; Balding, 2017). However, scholars have also emphasized that environmental policy in China has switched to a combination of many different approaches (Young et al., 2015), including the introduction of market-like instruments such as emissions trading (Engels/Wang et al., 2018).

Since 2008, the Chinese government has switched to a proactive stance on climate governance and low-carbon development in China’s Actions and Policies on Climate Change. Adopting a low-carbon development strategy promises a number of win-win-outcomes, including energy security, improved health conditions, and industrial and technological modernization. China also increases the direct use of renewables in end-use sectors, via bioenergy in industry, solar thermal for heating and biofuels for transport. On the one hand, the development of a low-carbon economy under the new global trade terms will bring about a resurgence of trade protectionism. On the other hand, energy-saving and clean energy technologies, two examples of the efforts promoted to evolve a low-carbon economy, will provide technological support for China’s initiatives to save energy and reduce carbon. The redefining of responsibilities will also enable China to obtain funds from developed countries to reduce its emissions. These policies are currently centred around the targets set in its NDC, which include a commitment to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 at the latest, lower the carbon intensity of GDP by 60%–65% below 2005 levels by 2030, increase the share of non-fossil energy carriers of the total primary energy supply to around 20% by that time, and increase its forest stock volume by 4.5 billion cubic metres, compared to 2005 levels as well as limiting growth in car ownership and promote faster electrification of mobility in China’s cities could cut the country’s oil demand (and imports) by 2.5 mb/d in 2040.

Is it too little, too late? China has admitted to, in the past, skewing numbers in favour of painting a picture starring a fast-moving, green-churning environmental machine. In short, there is enough evidence to suggest that climate change poses a health risk to the Chinese population. Future research needs to provide ways to adapt to climate change and assess the implementation of adaptation measures; improve the characteristics of climate-health relationships (especially at the regional level); identify thresholds, especially vulnerable groups; and collect and strengthen health issues that may be of concern Long-term monitoring data (including extreme temperatures, vector-borne diseases, air quality, pollen and mold numbers, foodborne and waterborne diseases, and the effects of extreme weather on mental health). Energy security and unprecedented high levels of air pollution have spurred a reluctantly mobilized Chinese government into action, but the question of whether economy or environmentalism shall win the day is still a complete and total toss-up. 

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The Effects of Globalization on Air Pollution in China’s Largest Cities. (2022, Feb 04). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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