Air Pollution & Burning Fossil Fuels

Air pollution generated by the burning of fossil fuels represents the fire phase in ecoArt China. Wen Fang and the Art of Change’s Maskbook project features online participants from around the world who share photographs of themselves wearing protective masks-turned-art...

Air Pollution & Burning Fossil Fuels

fire = south = summer = red = heat = bitter = noon = speech

Air pollution generated by the burning of fossil fuels represents the fire phase in ecoArt China. Wen Fang and the Art of Change’s Maskbook project features online participants from around the world who share photographs of themselves wearing protective masks-turned-art. Each one dwells on how we breathe and what we breathe. Breathing, it seems, has never been a more critical global issue than it is today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has focussed our attention and awareness on our breath. Our ability to breathe has been impaired by the coronavirus disease and by fear––of being deprived of human touch, of losing our loved ones, of dying. Our ability to breathe has been threatened by a respiratory disease that suffocates us physically and psychologically.

The pandemic also has provided a crash course on connectivity. We have learned the hard way how to effectively wash our hands to save other people’s lives, which politicians to vote and not to vote for, who in our social circles have a real sense of civic duty, how to contact-trace, how our economies depend on our ability to stay alive and share spaces.

But the pandemic is teaching us more about breathing clean air and the collective action that will help us to do so—though, this was a lesson we might have learned a century ago. It relates to a global environmental crisis that forced human reclusion from the pandemic has brought even more clearly to our attention: the difficulty of breathing caused by toxins and heavy metals that have leached into the air through the burning of fossil fuels.

We have all likely encountered recent articles about how air pollution decreased due to the pandemic (e.g., Gardiner 2020; Davenport 2020). Some articles show before-and-after photos of the air over various landscapes around the world (Hoeller 2020). Our need to stay at home, it seems, significantly slowed down the world economy and, as a consequence, reduced the emission of air pollutants by industry and transportation, and in China, the burning of coal.

But the real picture is not as clear as the “after” photographs. Studies on the air quality in China during the pandemic lockdown reveal what kind of air pollution was reduced in the country as a result of cordon sanitaires (“lockdowns”) and reduced human activity. A study by Silver et al. (2020) finds that the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide—a potent pollutant—and particulate matter (PM) were significantly reduced during the lockdown months relative to yearly projections, but the concentration of ozone was only slightly affected. PM and ozone are the most harmful air pollutants to human health. PM can penetrate deeply into the lungs and travel through the bloodstream, also affecting the heart. Ozone is highly irritant to the lungs and, like nitrogen dioxide, can worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma (Institute of Physics 2020).

Another study, by Le et al. (2020), finds different results for the concentration of PM in northern areas of China during the lockdown, but similarly concludes that ozone emissions remained an issue. Transport, industry, and power generation were the sectors most affected by the lockdown and are sources of nitrogen dioxide, which could explain lower levels during the lockdown. PM and ozone concentrations, however, are a result of residential emissions and thus were likely less affected by the lockdown (Silver et al. 2020, 11). As Le et al. (2020, 4) explain, “reductions in NOx [nitrogen oxides] and SO2 [sulphur dioxide] from traffic and manufacturing sectors have long been considered as the normal protocol in implementing regulatory policies. Our work shows that such a protocol achieves only limited effects on particulate matter and ozone levels, without simultaneous emission controls from power plants and heavy industry, such as petrochemical facilities. Therefore, we suggest a more comprehensive regulation of precursor gases from all possible sectors when developing an emission control strategy.”

Their recommendation brings attention to previous air quality control protocols in place in China. The air the Chinese have been breathing over the past decades has ranged from astoundingly polluted to less polluted but still dangerous. To be sure, since 1990 the government has devised effective measures for air quality control in the country (Kearns, Dormido, and McDonald 2018). The results have been significant—but they are inadequate. A study by Yin et al. (2020, e386) suggests that the concentration of certain air pollutants “decreased markedly in recent years in China” as a result of regulatory measures, but the concentration of other types of pollutants, such as particulate matter, “still exceed the WHO [World Health Organization] Air Quality Guideline for the entire population of China, with 81% living in regions exceeding the [first WHO targeted decrease of particulate matter], and air pollution remains an important risk factor.”

China today remains coal dependent, and is building more coal-fired plant capacity than the rest of the world combined (Yang 2019). Coal is a dirty energy source precisely because of particulate matter emissions (Zhang et. al. 2008). As of late October 2020, some regions in northern China registered air quality levels classified by the World Air Quality Index as “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” and “hazardous,” in relation to particulate matter concentrations. This is a haze so pea-soup thick you can feel it on your skin. It sears the lungs and eyes. It transforms the yellow sun into a grey penumbra in the sky.

Our collective understanding of the relationships between human activity and air quality has been complicated by COVID-19. But, as a highly contagious and significantly lethal respiratory disease, it has also magnified the urgency for clean air—an urgency that existed long before 2020, and in China, can be indexed to the carbon economy. Before COVID-19, wearing face masks was already a part of Chinese daily life. The burning of dirty fossil fuels made it so. While efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus may be helping air quality to some degree, poor air quality only compounds its destructive potential and makes the necessity to take action to improve the air we breathe—not only in China but around the world—that much more pressing.

Mariana Espindola