On February 28, 2015, a TED-style talk on China’s pollution crisis got 100 million views on major Chinese video streaming sites like Tencent, Youku, and People’s Daily Online within 48 hours of its release. Chai Jing, a former investigative reporter with the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), wove a narrative that was both emotional and rational. She used statistics, interviews and personal stories including that of a six-year-old girl from the coal mining province of Shanxi who had never seen stars or white clouds in her life. China News Service reported at the time that after Chai’s 103-minute long, self-financed Under the Dome released, the then-newly appointed minister for environment protection, Chen Jining, said he thanked her for focusing attention on environmental problems.
Two Decembers before Chai’s documentary, Beijing had experienced yet another “Airpocalypse” with air pollution going literally off the charts. This was almost exactly what Delhi is currently experiencing: a thick smog, a soundtrack of dry hacking coughs and frequent visits to the doctor. While, for China, 2013 wasn’t exceptional in the way that the smog arrested visibility, or closed airports or kept children out of school, it is remembered as the year that discussion of the country’s air pollution went mainstream. To begin with, on the first day of 2013, the Chinese government began quantifying pollution and published the air quality index (AQI) which measures fine particulate matter PM 2.5 in real-time. Reports from 2013 state that in mid-January, AQI in Beijing spiked to 993, toxic levels familiar to Delhi’s residents.
What followed was regional-level action, says Lauri Myllyvirta, a Helsinki-based lead analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “In most cities, including Delhi and Beijing, most of the PM2.5 pollution comes from outside the city, and, therefore, it’s crucial to address pollution in the entire region, not just expect individual cities to make progress. China designated 27 cities around Beijing, in five different provinces and up to 600 km away, as a key control region. Similar key control regions were created around Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi'an,” he says.
Creation of these regions was the “breakthrough”, Myllyvirta says. Compare that to India: “Delhi has shut down its own coal-fired power plant but is surrounded by more than a dozen coal-fired plants that are still failing to comply with the national emissions standards, many of them much larger than Badarpur, within the NCR,” he says.
Subsequently, China’s environmental ministry published stats every month on which cities and regions made progress or got worse. Local environmental bureaus hired thousands of inspectors to carry out supervision, and every month, dozens of factories and other emitting facilities were fined or shut down for violations, says Myllyvirta.
By the time Chai’s documentary came out in 2015, the country was already experiencing over two years of public awareness around air pollution. Chinese researchers reportedly found that the term PM 2.5 went from 200 mentions in January 2011 to 3 million two years later on the Chinese micro-blogging site Sina Weibo. People began posting, on social media, photos of themselves wearing masks.
Chai’s talk didn’t offer new information on the pollution crisis, but it found an eager audience on the Chinese internet for being deeply personal, since she talked about the effects the air had on her child. As Daniel K. Gardner wrote in The New York Times at the time: “Under the Dome, then, may have provided a safe ‘public’ space for Chinese citizens to vent collectively about government corruption and incompetence in addressing the toxic air they breathe each and every day.” Within a week of its release, the documentary was taken off Chinese streaming sites.
In her talk, Chai also mentioned an app that had been developed the previous year. The same week, the app, developed by Beijing-based The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), crashed, unable to handle the volume of downloads. The Blue Map app came about after the Chinese government began disclosing real-time monitoring of harmful air pollutants. It pulled data from multiple government platforms so Chinese citizens could have easy access to hourly air quality data in more than 300 cities, by way of data from emission monitors installed in major factories. Apart from just the amount of PM 2.5 in the air, IPE disclosed the sources of PM 2.5 as well, a spokesperson says. “The Blue Map app currently relies on monitoring data and factory violation records published by the Chinese government.”
In other words, the Blue Map, allows the general public to spot the polluting factories (indicated as red dots) and report them on Weibo. In 2014, IPE worked with the local government in Shandong province and enabled the closure of three shaft furnaces for not meeting environmental standards. Over the years, other local governments have started taking an active role.
“The app has about 3.5 million downloads and daily users ranging from 16,000-130,000,” says an IPE spokesperson, “IPE has begun collecting similar official government data from countries outside of China with the goal of making it publicly available and easy to access from a centralised location — on a website or mobile app — where citizens and other stakeholders can find it. To this end, IPE is seeking local partners in India, Vietnam and other manufacturing countries to build an international database.”
To experts, Beijing’s fight against air pollution is a “crucial” story for any nation wishing to follow a similar path. “This improvement in air quality didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of an enormous investment of time, resources and political will,” said Joyce Msuya, deputy executive director of UN Environment, earlier this year.
Smart Air’s head of operations in Beijing Paddy Robertson says, “In recent years, Beijing’s annual average pollution levels have dropped 40 per cent, reaching 49 micrograms per cubic metre in 2018 — that’s almost half the annual average for Delhi in the same period. Delhi’s annual PM 2.5 levels have also been falling (they fell by 15 per cent from 2016 to 2018), but more needs to be done.”
The same year that the Chinese government began monitoring air pollutants, Beijing introduced a four-colour alert system for air pollution. “For example, during ‘red alert’ days an odd-even system was implemented, much like what the Delhi government has implemented — although the system in Delhi could be standardised to clearly indicate under what conditions the odd-even car restrictions are put in place,” says Robertson. “The Beijing four colour alert system also has the added benefit of raising awareness about air pollution (with text messages sent to all Beijing residents announcing the alert and warning people to protect their health). Similar mass-communication campaigns could help improve awareness in Delhi also,” he says.
Six years after tackling its own crisis, Chinese state media reported this week about Delhi’s pollution levels. One of the messages that trickled through was Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s advice to eat more carrots to combat air pollution. Robertson points to a vegetable eaten in abundance in China: Broccoli. “The compound sulforaphane has been found to help remove pollutants like benzene from our bodies, as well as fight inflammation. Studies have shown that eating as little as 150g of broccoli can reduce inflammation caused by particulate air pollution. Many other foods contain sulforaphane, including brussels sprouts, red cabbage and cauliflower.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline 'Clearing the Air'