Gasping for air: Youth-led groups fight against air pollution in China

Gasping for air: Youth-led groups fight against air pollution in China

A girl with a balloon and special breathing devices in Beijing in 2013, which saw the severest smog since PM2.5 was officially monitored in 2011. Credit: Greenpeace

A girl with a balloon and special breathing devices in Beijing in 2013, which saw the severest smog since PM2.5 was officially monitored in 2011. Credit: Greenpeace

A thick, heavy smog enveloped half of China in late 2011, derailing daily life. Airports and railways closed due to poor visibility, respiratory problems surged, and people couldn’t walk on the street without a mask covering their mouth and nose.

The nationwide smog crisis provoked resentment and distrust toward the government, who never officially reported or monitored levels of PM2.5, a kind of particulate with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers. PM2.5 can cause a series of respiratory diseases and even cancer because it absorbs toxic heavy metals, acid oxides, and organic pollutants. Under public pressure, the Chinese government started monitoring PM2.5 in 2012.

In the fight against PM2.5, Chinese millennials are shouldering their responsibilities. Yuling Jia got her doctorate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University and is an air pollution expert. She knows how badly PM2.5 can influence health and how ignorant the public was back in 2011, when the U.S. embassy in China monitored the air quality and released the results on their Twitter account Beijing Air, which reports air quality in Beijing several times daily.

“I want to apply what I’ve learned to the public,” said Jia. “Not only should we rely on government and media, but also the power of non-governmental organizations which can deliver more messages to every community.”

Jia is teaching people how to distinguish between smog safety masks and general masks at a conference in mainland China. Credit: Sichuan Environment and Engineering Appraisal Center

Jia is teaching people how to distinguish between smog safety masks and general masks at a conference in mainland China. Credit: Sichuan Environment and Engineering Appraisal Center

She joined Clean Air Network (CAN) in 2011, a young non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong, as the director of education and research. CAN monitors air quality, updates the data on their website every day and even distributes portable air quality monitors to residents. People with these monitor can report the real-time data to CAN, which would release the information through social media. CAN developed its own mobile application, from which people can detect the PM2.5 index and report nearby pollutant sources.

“All those data work as a supplementary resource for local government,” said Jia, “and the engagement aroused more people’s attention to the public health.”

Jia gave a series of educational lectures in Hong Kong and mainland China, with topics ranging from selecting the best masks to filtering air. Her audience gave positive feedback.

“Their showing-up at the lecture already means they care,” said Jia. “Caring is a kind of power and the following action will bring changes.”

But teaching citizens to protect themselves from PM2.5 and its harmful effects is just the first step in the fight for clean air — only by understanding how it forms and how to prevent it can Chinese people really win the battle.

Beijing office under Greenpeace East Asia (GPEA), a branch of the global non-governmental environmental organization, conducted a pollutant source analysis and released a report in 2013. The study determined that the top cause of PM2.5 in the Beijing-Tianjing-Hebei region was emissions from burning coal. In 2014, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection conducted pollutant source analysis in nine cities, concluding that the chief culprits of PM2.5 were coal burning, motor vehicles, and flying dust.

As a young organization, Greenpeace knows how to capture peers’ attention through social media. “People know us mainly from the media, maybe it’s just a retweet by an influential official account,” said Liansai Dong, climate and energy campaigner in Greenpeace East Asia.

Greenpeace even combines their mission with rock music. Greenpeace have collaborated with MIDI festival to have an environmental-themed rock festival.

At the festival, they set a display booth there to popularize how coal burning is related to PM2.5, volunteers with green scarves handed out the PM2.5 Public Health Guidance to audiences, and bands delivered important messages to their fans: reduce fossil fuel use — we want clean breathing.

At the MIDI rock festival in 2012, rock fans gather for music and call for cleaner air. The banners hang up on the platform from right to left mean “We have our demand on breathing” and “Rock reflects our spirit.” Credit: Greenpeace

At the MIDI rock festival in 2012, rock fans gather for music and call for cleaner air. The banners hang up on the platform from right to left mean “We have our demand on breathing” and “Rock reflects our spirit.” Credit: Greenpeace

Greenpeace is a major player in the environmental cause in China. It conferred a “golden saw” trophy at an industry conference to an Indonesian paper-making company who illegally lumbered in China, and Greenpeace was the first organization in China to install a solar roof to promote clean fuel for the public.

“Non-violent direct action is our principle,” said Dong, “besides conducting academic research, taking actions is always an efficient way to deal with the environmental problems.”

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV

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