Chinese Atmospheric Pollution: An Overview of Causes and Mitigation Efforts

By: Annabelle Tsaboukas | December 2014


This paper looks at the largely coal-derived air pollution in and around the Bohai Economic Rim of northeastern China, which has spread by way of Westerly winds to most of the Korean peninsula and regions of Japan below the island of Hokkaido. The research employs a review of the literature to consider the probable sources, process, and related issues of the problem, as well as possible alleviations weighed for their effectiveness and economic cost. The air pollution issue in China is significant as it impacts not only its Asian neighbors, but also the West Coast of the United States, and contributes to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere as a whole. This area proves to be difficult in that a sizeable portion of industrial emissions in China can be linked to factories producing products for foreign markets.

Key Words: China, air pollution, dust storm, particulate matter, environmental policy, international cooperation


In the wake of decades of unrestrained economic growth, the Chinese capital of Beijing has been waging a “war against pollution,” having seen its population grow 66% and the total number of vehicles by nearly 200% between 1998 and 2012 (UNEP, 2013). Following the swift rise in vehicle use as well as industrial coal-burning, the resulting opaque smog that shrouds China’s urban areas combines with occasional dust storms from surrounding regions, exacerbated by desertification. The dangerously high concentration of PM2.5 forms a haze which can be seen from space, and which is over four times the daily level recommended by the World Health Organization. It has been linked to over a million premature deaths in 2010 alone (NY Times), canceled flights, and tarnished the image of Chinese cities including Beijing, which saw a 10% drop in tourism in the first 11 months of 2013 (

As the world’s largest emitter of anthropogenic air pollutants, China contained 16 of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution worldwide by the year 2003 (Worldwatch). Not only does this pollution clearly prove detrimental to human health, society at large, and the economy (it has been reported by state-run media that pollution in 2005 alone cost the country over $200 billion); measurable amounts of Chinese pollution are transported via the atmosphere to surrounding nations, traveling as far as the United States across the Pacific Ocean, thereby making the issue an international one (China Daily). Carbon dioxide emissions also contribute to global warming, with China’s emission levels from fuel combustion and cement production now topping the charts as the world’s highest.

Sources of the air pollution in Northeastern China

In concrete terms, the composition of the rampant smog seen in major Chinese cities is an amalgamation of SO2, NOX, CO, O3 and particulate matter that has built up over time to dangerous levels (Greenpeace). Studies have shown a seasonal component, with soil dust waxing in the spring and waning in the summer (and SO2 and NOX appearing much more in winter) (Wang, 2004; Zhang, 2013); and changes also due to shifts in circumpolar vortex dynamics, cyclone events, etc. Six main sources have been identified for smog in Beijing: soil dust, coal combustion, biomass burning, traffic and waste incineration emission, industrial pollution, and secondary inorganic aerosol (Zhang, 2013). This complex mixture makes up PM2.5, the most hazardous of fine particulate matter. Generally it is produced by secondary pollutants (such as SO2 and NOX, both emitted from the combustion of coal) either condensing onto primary pollutants (such as soot), or reacting to form dangerously small new particles.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has cited as much as one-fourth of Beijing’s PM2.5 to come from surrounding districts ( This would include industrial air emissions and soil dust from desertification. Of the pollutants that come locally from Beijing, the majority (22%) comes from direct and indirect vehicle emissions; 16.7% comes from coal pollution; 16.3% from industrial emissions and 16% from urban dust pollution. The last 4.5% of PM2.5 is reported to originate from rural straw burning (

Regarding this largest local source of PM2.5 – vehicle emissions – many point the blame squarely on low-grade gasoline (Sohu). Requirements for sulfur content in gasoline in China are extremely lax: Chinese allowances for sulfur content are 500 times as high as those of the US and 1,500 times as high as those of Europe. The reason for this has been stated that adjusting to a higher standard would require updating infrastructure and raising oil prices slightly, which is against the interest of China’s three biggest oil companies.

Another contributor to degraded air quality in northeastern China – one with much more far-reaching immediate consequences, and as such, is more widely researched – is the dust storms along the “Dust Belt” from Central Asia to Northeast Asia, mostly originating from the Hexi Corridor and western Inner Mongolia Plateau, the Taklimakan Desert, and the central Inner Mongolia Plateau. The sources of the dust are debated, but after analysis of dust particles, it can be determined that deserts themselves contribute only minimally to the dust storm directly. The dust instead is most likely from deteriorated grasslands, lacustrine sediments and wadis on the outskirts of the deserts (Wang, 2004).

The dust storms are highly correlated with climate change and human activity. Studies have increasingly identified stronger desert winds and changes in land surface on cultivated lands as major causes of Asian dust events (Kurosaki, et al., 2011; Kimura, 2012). These changes of course are in part due to desertification due to climate change and human activities (such as overgrazing and over-cultivation). Every year nearly 100 million tons of the mineral dust are transported from these regions across the Pacific region by way of powerful westerly winds, and mix along the way with urban haze and biomass-burning smoke in the troposphere (Tatarov, et al., 2012). The precise makeup includes natural metals, anthropogenic metals, and many other pollutants at various concentrations depending on the atmospheric transport route. This phenomenon results in adverse health effects and poor visibility among local populations across thousands of miles following the occurrences of Asian dust storm events.

The Spread

It is this long-range transport of dust aerosol which is most apparent in the literature involving Chinese air pollution affecting surrounding regions. Using backward trajectory calculation methods, the dust storms observed in areas across the East China Sea are commonly found to have origins in Inner Mongolia. In western Japan, for example, such “yellow-dust phenomenon” events have occurred since antiquity most often in springtime, when severe dust storms happen in connection with low-pressure systems that develop between March and May (Kimura, 2012). However since 2000, major dust events have been occurring more frequently, owing to increased desertification, deforestation and land degradation in arid and semi-arid Asian regions. Its makeup also changed: normally, the dust particles consist of PM10 made up of the minerals found in soil of the source regions. However, when the dust storms blow through industrial regions of northeast China, the proportion of PM2.5 rises (Lee, 2013). Across the Korean peninsula, dust crosses northeastern China where it will mix with industrial coal-related pollution. It was reported in 2010 that two strong events of mineral dust storms took place in March and November of that year, which is unusual as dust outbreaks do not often occur in fall. This November event was the strongest ever witnessed in Korea in the fall (Tatarov, et al., 2012; Vellingiri, 2014).

While Asian dust storms could transport in the upper troposphere towards the east to Korea, Japan, and even North America, they could also flow south to Taiwan and Southeast Asia due to anticyclone of atmospheric circulation. Some sands might actually benefit the global geochemistry by providing nutrients (Fe2+) to the ocean; however the storms have other obvious drawbacks, resulting in great losses of national economies, mass migration and human health impacts (Jen, et al., 2014).

Impacts on Public Health and Other Nations

The decades-worth of pollution buildup in the atmosphere in urban China have had both domestic and international consequences. Dust storms occurring in the northeast have affected air quality even to the south of the country due to the springtime synoptic system (Huang, 2013). Cities with higher levels of both atmospheric pollution and traffic congestion have been proven to be home to people with lower personal well-being and even lower average incomes (Smyth, 2011). Nearly just as well documented are the impacts of Chinese air pollution on the country’s Asian neighbors. The regions directly in the wake of its path include the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and Taiwan. A considerable number of studies have documented close relationships between the dust storms and morbidity as well as mortality among populations in these countries. In a recent study undertaken by the Seoul National University in cooperation with the University of Tsukuba in Japan, the effects of Asian dust storms on daily mortality in South Korea from 2001 to 2009 were published for the first time (Lee, 2013). Seven metropolitan cities across the country were analyzed and SO2, NO2 and PM10 levels were added to the analysis. Significant associations were found between non-accidental deaths and Asian dust storms, with each city differing according to geographical characteristics. Across the board, deaths due to cardiovascular diseases accounted for 23.9% (Gwangju) to 30.8% (Busan). Deaths due to respiratory illnesses accounted for 5.7% (Seoul) to 7.5% (Daejeon) of the total. In addition, there were still statistically significant effects on daily mortality even after adjusting for local air pollutants (Lee, 2013).

Public health impacts seen in Japan have likewise been studied extensively. Asian dust events have been studied in relation to asthma symptoms in Japan, concluding that adult patients with asthma experienced aggravated lower respiratory symptoms (Watanabe, et al., 2011). In one study involving dust events coincidence with hospital admissions, it was shown that the dust worsened a variety of conditions (including asthma, allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis, and contact dermatitis) (Onishi, 2011). Most interestingly though, was data showing the components of the dust aerosols and how exactly these components vary depending on the transport route through the atmosphere. Thus in this study the difference in components was analyzed alongside the diversity in symptoms to find correlations. For example, a correlation was found between skin symptoms and nickel that causes contact dermatitis. In total, three types of Asian dust events were categorized depending on their components and what areas of Asia they passed over as air masses (some containing mostly anthropogenic metals from heavily industrialized zones). The study suggested that the components of Asian dust should be considered when investigating the health effects of Asian dust events.

In Taiwan, the effects of Asian dust storm events have been studied with regards to a great number of factors, including air quality (Liu, 2006), mortality (Chen, et al., 2004), stroke admissions (Yang, et al., 2005), admissions for Respiratory Diseases (Chien, 2012), and allergic rhinitis (Chang, et al., 2006), to name a few.

While one expects regions in close proximity to be heavily impacted by sources of airborne pollution, less obvious is the effect on North America’s western coast. Dust, ozone and carbon have accumulated in valleys and basins in California and other Western states (New York Times). Black carbon especially persists across long distances as it will not be washed out of the atmosphere following heavy rain, and is linked to a plethora of pulmonary and respiratory diseases (New York Times). As a result of Asian dust storms, western regions in the United States are limited in their ability to reach visibility goals (NRC, 2001). A report for the California State EPA compiled by Donald DePaolo of Berkeley University revealed that during periods of high dust storm activity, as much as 45% of the PM2.5 mass in California can be sourced in Asia (DePaolo, 2012). The study utilized Pb and Sr isotopic measurements of PM2.5 in California to discover the impact of Chinese-sourced aerosols on air quality. PM2.5 samples were collected and analyzed for Pb and Sr isotopes and elemental composition, and it was found that the samples contained both locally-derived and China-sourced Pb as well as Chinese loess, and that during the spring, up to about 50% of the ozone concentration in the Bay Area may have origins from across the Pacific (DePaolo, 2012).

Foreign aerosols in this way raise the burden of local pollutants and restrict the amount of local emissions allowed by State and Federal Air Quality Standards. For example, an average of 20 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 in one 24-hour period was found to be imported from Asia at one site in California – taking up a large fraction of the EPA standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, which could have been the reason for that location going above the standard on that date.

Air Pollution Linked to Factories Producing for Foreign Markets

While dust from deteriorated grasslands and emissions from China’s heavy industry are contributing to air pollution in the western United States, a significant percentage of these emissions is due to the manufacture of goods for foreign trade, including export to the United States. In a recent study written by nine scholars based in three nations, interconnected economies are shown to have environmental consequences (Lin, et al., 2013). International trade changes the location of production and therefore dictates where emissions will occur. While the east coast of the US is seeing cleaner air as a result of less manufacturing, the air quality in the west is diminishing from the invasion of pollutants associated with the production of goods in China for the American market (Lin, et al., 2013). Therefore outsourcing production to China does not always relieve Americans from the environmental impacts of air pollution.

The group involved with this study included both economists as well as environmental scientists, so as to conduct various modeling and analysis on the Chinese economy alongside the earth’s atmosphere and weather systems. It was found that in 2006, “36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export. For each of these pollutants, about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export.” This export-related pollution contributed, at a maximum, 12–24% of sulfate concentrations over the western US daily. The scholars behind the study wish for their research to encourage the adoption of a consumption-based accounting of emissions, rather than only production-based accounting. China and other emerging economies depend on heavily polluting industries for international trade, and reducing pollution while maintaining this trade may require international agreements based on this “consumption-based” accounting of emissions and atmospheric transport modeling.

International Cooperation

Since the 1980s, the PRC government has (gradually) adopted an increasingly active attitude towards international environmental cooperation, and over the past decade China has made significant progress; overall these initiatives are seen as favorable by the scientific community (Sitaraman, 2006; Wilkening, 2006; Duan, 2011). China has ratified many bilateral and multilateral environmental treaties (including the Kyoto Protocol) and submitted various reports documenting their progress. There is also cooperation with the World Bank to fight land degradation and desertification.

One researcher of international relations regarding environmental issues sought to find out whether “scientific factors” (climate change, pollutant transport, ecosystem change, the desire of a state to upgrade its scientific capability) or “nonscientific factors” (casualties, property damage, reduced visibility, power dynamics within the state system, etc.) were more influential in initiating international cooperation on the long-range transport of Asian dust. The article divides the case studies into that of Northeast Asia and that of North America, establishing that international cooperation follows a parallel relationship (motivation decreases the greater the distance from the source of pollution) (Wilkening, 2006).

In Asia, Wilkening explains, the main determining factors of international cooperation are non-scientific in nature. In terms of national interests of China, the devastating dust storms as well as creating a positive image on the world stage – both non-science factors – have recently been the main driving forces for national and international agendas. (For example, in order to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China began working with Australia’s to set up an air pollution and dust forecasting system.) In South Korea and Japan, two non-science factors inhibit cooperation with China – relating to historical context (the three countries have an uneasy relationship due colonial and World War II events, leading to distrust in international relations) and economic competition. However one other important non-science factor outweighs these: the concern over future environmental quality in the region. As for the Korean Peninsula, the defining crisis was a 2002 dust storm so severe that the “obvious negative impacts” completely shaped South Korean interests. Since then a large part of South Korea’s scientific effort has involved monitoring and modeling dust storms. Thus it became necessary for South Korea to cooperate with China and Mongolia for access to scientific information. Japan, too distant from the source to experience extremely damaging dust storms, has had science playing a larger role. The scientific study of dust transport from the mainland dates back to the early 1900s. Today, Japan has been engaged with research programs with China of pollutant transport and aerosol-related climate change. China, Mongolia, South Korea, and Japan have each constructed national interests relative to the dust storm problem since the 1990s. Identifying common interests has led to multilateral cooperation in the form of annual China-Japan-Korea environmental conferences, in turn leading to a strategy for addressing the issue (Wilkening).

In the US and Canada, it was scientists who first educated the public and policymakers that aerosols were being carried across the Pacific Ocean. A dust storm over the Gobi Desert had considerably affected PM levels on the West Coast. But despite mass media attention, the two countries have yet to engage in sustained, institutionalized cooperation with China and Mongolia on the same level as Korea and Japan have, and are limited to only small-scale, bilateral cooperation with Northeast Asia. This, Wilkening says, is because non-science factors (obvious public health impacts, etc.) have played almost no role in the development of common interests. Instead there has been only scientifically determined, subtle consequences (science factors) related to climate change and air quality standards.

In short, institutionalized cooperation is occurring in Northeast Asia due to commonly perceived threats, however in Canada and the US there have not been obvious impacts of air pollution, leading to a great deal less cooperation. The balanced dynamic between China’s and Mongolia’s lack of scientific capacity and Japan’s and South Korea’s technological prowess has also encouraged cooperation. South Korea and Japan have offered advanced technologies in exchange for access to valuable environmental data (Wilkening).

Recently, though, there appears to have been some growth in US-China environmental cooperation. A detailed comparative study – developed by the US National Academies and the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2008 – attempted to examine multitudinous aspects of energy efficiency and pollution problems in the two countries. The study cites case studies of four cities (Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Huainan, and Dalian) for the purpose of giving insight into managing energy use and air quality on a local level, with the ultimate goal of providing some assistance to Chinese policymakers in meeting energy demands, managing growth in motor vehicle use, and improving air quality (NAP).

Another recent report discusses in detail the extensive investment in energy-related research done in cooperation between China and various international partners, both intergovernmental and non-governmental (Duan, 2011). At the time of publication, China had set up technological cooperation agreements with over 100 countries, for the most part with universities and institutes of Japan, the US, and various European countries. Duan’s study found that the degree of cooperation is not the same for different areas of research: hydrogen energy, fuel energy and applied energy have received the most attention from the Chinese, while wind energy, solar energy, fuel cells and bio-energy are relatively new areas without much research being done until recently. Only in late 2006 did renewable energy collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) begin facilitating programs that create and implement solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydrogen energy technologies. Since then the protocol has helped encourage American renewable energy companies to do business in China. With coal being the most important energy source in China, reduction of its pollution is a main concern. The US and China are tackling similar problems with regards to this energy source – upgrading power plants, commercialization of technologies – and thus there is great promise for cooperation between the countries. Several Chinese power corporations have invested in some efficient energy technology, for example Huadian Energy has partnered with West Virginia University to study carbon capture and storage in Inner Mongolia (Duan, 2011).

Most recently, a notable attempt at multilateral dialogue was made in March of this year, when officials from Japan, China and South Korea met to for their first policy dialogue session on cross-border pollution (Asahi Shimbun). During the session, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged the need to learn about air pollution mechanisms and countermeasures from Japan and South Korea, and Japan expressed an eagerness to share its expertise. This is despite a worsening of relations between the three countries over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands and “perceptions of history”; Tokyo and Beijing have been “unable to hold even ministerial meetings” however Beijing continues to reach out to Japanese officials for help in combatting the serious air pollution (Asahi Shimbun).


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