The following post is authored by student and Sherwood blogging intern, Rachel Gross.
One of the most talked about environmental topics in 2013 has been the horrific air quality in Beijing, China. In January, the city’s air reached a level of 755 on the U.S. EPA’s Air Quality Index, which is only supposed to go up to 500. To understand just how bad this is, anything above 151 is considered unhealthy. The 301 to 500 range is considered “hazardous” and an “emergency condition” in which the entire population in the area may experience serious health effects.
The Air Quality Index measures the amount of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) in the air. Recent reports show that the air quality in Beijing generally varies between 250 and 400 and is almost constantly considered either “very unhealthy” or “hazardous”. Clearly the city’s air pollution is a long-term issue. The picture below shows just how bad the air quality can be on a particularly bad day.
Chinese air quality has been notoriously poor since the country tends to emphasize economic growth through industrialization and manufacturing over environmental protection. The increased amount of car use and pollution from power plants is thought to have caused the majority of the air pollution that plagues China’s cities.
Severe air pollution can result in serious health issues such as respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia. Long-term exposure to poor air quality can lead to chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, and heart disease. Because of these health effects, the air quality in China became an international concern during the 2008 Olympics. A lot of athletes were concerned that their performance and personal health would be adversely affected during the competition because of the polluted air. During the months leading up to the Olympics, the Chinese government instituted several regulations that limited that amount of vehicular traffic in and around Beijing to reduce pollutant emissions.
To improve its air quality, China will impose stricter emission regulations on coal-fired power plants as well as major manufacturing plants. These regulations seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to the international media buzz about the recent air quality reports and it remains to be seen how effective these measures will be. The Chinese national government and individual Chinese cities will have to do much more to effectively decrease air pollution to a safe level. Ultimately, China faces the same challenge as the rest of the world in reducing its dependence on harmful fossil fuels. This must be done through changes in transportation infrastructure as well as sustainable urban planning and development.
Sherwood has worked on a number projects in China aimed at sustainable development. In my last blog post, I mentioned Sherwood’s involvement with Tianjin Eco-City. This project worked to improve air quality by relying on renewable (and non-polluting) energy resources and an urban layout that encourages walking and biking instead of driving. Another project, the Baietan Area Master Plan in Guangzhou, is a similar sustainable urban planning project on a larger scale. This project aims to transform industrialized and polluted land into a clean, ecologically designed community. The area will reduce energy demand by implementing building-scale energy efficiency measures and smart-grid technology. Energy for the city will be provided from a new nuclear power plant. Sherwood has participated in several such sustainable urban design projects in the Chinese cities of Jiaxing, Lanfang, and Wenzhou. Many of these projects aim to achieve Net Zero energy use. By decreasing energy demand and utilizing renewable energy resources, China can progress toward a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future.