Caution: heavy smog

Air pollution in China's capital city of Beijing reached record levels over the weekend. According to the U.S. Embassy twitter @BeijingAir, at 8pm on Saturday PM 2.5 readings surged to 886 µg/m3, exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s highest grading of "hazardous" which is anything between 301-500, and far beyond the level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization, which is a 25 µg/m3 mean over a 24 hour period.

The fact that many Chinese cities, not just Beijing, suffer terrible air pollution is common knowledge. And every day there are millions of people in the country who step out their door and see a heavy blanket of smog with their own two eyes. But how do you explain why the vast majority of these same citizens walk the streets, ride their bicycles and carry on their day without protection (such as an N95 face mask)?

Seeing is different than understanding, and that is the critical shift we are slowly beginning to witness in China.

It has never been easy to cloak the air pollution problem in China – unlike the host of other environmental concerns that are so easily exported out into the countryside. But until recently that public knowledge has been skin deep. Building a detailed picture of just how severe the pollution is and the impacts it is having on the country is a critical step for those trying to amass the momentum required to push for change.

Last month Greenpeace, along with Peking University's School of Public Health, contributed to this public understanding of the country's air pollution problem with a new study that measures the human health and economic impact on China's largest cities. It found that last year an estimated 8,572 premature deaths in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Beijing could be linked to PM2.5 air pollution. And in the same period these cities suffered a combined total of U.S.$1.08 billion in economic loss.

This follows a year in which we have seen the Chinese government finally begin releasing PM2.5 data for more and more cities, and from more and more stations within these cities. Such a long sought after change represents a significant step in the fight to solve China's air pollution problems. Not only does particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter pose a serious health hazard, it is most prevalent in the combustion of coal – which makes up 70% of the country's energy mix, and was therefore a large chunk of data missing from the government's air quality readings.

An earlier report in May from Greenpeace ranked economically important Chinese cities by actions provincial governments had taken to solve their respective air pollution issues. Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Zhou Rong explained to me why such reports are so important. "The Chinese public has had to pay for the air pollution with their health for many years now," she said. "The only way we can argue for an end to this unfair trade, and push for changes in government policies, is to bring to the table hard evidence and precise numbers of the damage being done."

She points out that this new report sheds light on just a few pieces of the puzzles, and that more data will help clear the haze – so to speak – currently obscuring understanding of the severity of this issue. "Because of the limited data available, we were only able to calculate acute death numbers in limited cities. But a full picture of the real health loss should include chronic death and disease, which would be much bigger than the acute death numbers," says Zhou.

The report also calculates the potential savings on national health care costs should there be an improvement of air pollution levels. For example in 2012 Beijing experienced a loss of U.S. $328 million due to PM2.5 pollution. But U.S. $283 million of this could have been saved had it reached air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Add Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou and the savings would have come to an incredible U.S. $868 million.

Of course, building public knowledge and mounting pressure on the government is just the beginning. Next comes the hard work – actually implementing the changes that will lead to clean, safe air. To that end, the latest report also includes policy recommendations such as capping regional coal consumption, De-NOx retrofiting for existing coal-fired power plants, and shutting down inefficient coal-fired industrial boilers.

Still, Zhou says success will require regional governments to announce clear timelines for the improvement of air quality and detailed action plants. This is something that, with the exceptions of Beijing and Tianjin, we've seen few cities carry out.

Although the country is walking a long, hard road before it reaches the land of crisp, clean, blue skies, Zhou is cautiously optimistic about the future. "Particularly on information disclosure, we've seen in recent times the public, media and NGOs come together to demand transparency, which has really triggered a big change. But we've also noticed that when it comes to the real health impacts of air pollution, the Chinese public has very limited knowledge. Only once there's real understanding of how harmful air pollution is, can concern turn into pressure and momentum to make real change."

Image © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring