China Tries to Clean Up Air

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China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Michele Norris, who is in Beijing, talks to Melissa Block about what the country is doing to combat climate change. Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute discusses the measures China is taking to clean up the air before the Summer Olympics.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Our co-host, Michele Norris has been in China for the past 10 days, she's looking at what that country is doing to fight climate change as part of our series Climate Connections. China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

And Michele joins us from Beijing to talk about some of what she's learned there. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: And we're going to be hearing your reports next month in April once you get back, tell us what some of your overall impressions have been there.

NORRIS: Well, my biggest impression is that everything is really big - big population and very big challenges. It's a country that relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs which, by the way, are growing by the day given how fast this country is developing. And for now, most of the energy demand is coming from industry. But you are also seeing more and more consumer demand, more people driving cars, more air travel, people buying air conditioners and more refrigerators and more washing machines.

And at the same time, the government has set very ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for introducing renewable and alternative energy sources. And we've been looking at some of the projects that they're working on to meet those goals. So it does seem like the government is very much aware of what it needs to do, but whether or not it can actually be done and be done quickly - you know that's another question.

BLOCK: Do people there, Michele, talk about climate change as we do here in the United States?

NORRIS: Well, they don't necessarily use those specific terms. You might not hear people talking specifically about climate change or global warming, specifically, but there is a lot of talk about conserving energy, conserving water, protecting the environment. These are things that people, if you walk around, you see that there are timed lights throughout the city. When you walk into an apartment building, the lights only come on when they sense your motion or when you sort of stomp on the floor and that will activate the light. You see throughout the city these dual trash receptacles that separate recyclables and non-recyclables.

Now, a lot of this is not necessarily new. The people do tell me, and I've heard this time and time again, that there is much greater public awareness about this now, the attitudes really have changed.

BLOCK: Now, of course, Beijing will be hosting the Olympic Games this summer starting in August. And there has been a lot of talk about air quality, air pollution, what effect that might have on the athletes.

NORRIS: A lot of talk and a lot of worry about that also. And in the time that I've been here, we have seen a string of what they call blue sky days. Clear sky you can actually see the city skyline. And I was wondering if this was just my good fortune of having timed this trip during a run of good weather, or whether this sort of clear sky that you are seeing are really a manifestation of this effort to clear the air.

So I thought of someone who could actually talk about this with authority. Her name is Deborah Seligsohn. She's with an organization called World Resources Institute. She's the Director of China Program. She focus on climate energy and pollution. And I met with her the other day on a balcony overlooking central Beijing.

BLOCK: Okay, And we're going to hear going to hear some of your conversation there.

NORRIS: So Debbie, we are out here on this balcony, we have a pretty good view of the city, how would you describe the air quality today?

Ms. DEBORAH SELIGSOHN (China Program Director, World Resources Institute): It's pretty good. It's not the best you'll ever see. I think we've had very nice air quality for the last week and it's starting to get a little hazy again. If you look straight up it's bright blue, and if you come down you kind of get this umber shading, and that's how you could see, sort of, how much particulate there is in the sky. That gray on the horizon is actually particulate matter in the air. So, you know, it's a pretty spring day, but there's definitely some pollution in there.

NORRIS: Yeah, and you can really see it off in the distance there.


NORRIS: Yeah. What has the city done to try to improve air quality in advance of the Olympics?

Ms. SELIGSOHN: Well, for a number of years, they've been very assiduously shutting down most of the major pollution within Beijing City. So they outlawed the use of coal within the Third Ring Road, they put in much more stringent vehicle standards, they shut down a lot of heavy industry. But what they started to realize was as they were pushing dirty industries out of Beijing, they were all moving into the neighboring provinces.

And so a few years ago, the State Environmental Protection Agency, SEPA, started working on what they call the Regional Air Quality Management, and Beijing is now involved with five of its neighboring provinces and regional air quality planning for the Olympics. And I think part of the reason air quality has been better for the last week is that last week they said they'd started the shutdown of some power plants and some heavy-polluting industries in the neighboring provinces.

NORRIS: There have been stories about athletes who've come to China to train, to get used to, you know, pushing their bodies under these conditions and some of those stories have not been great. Athletes have really struggled in this air quality. How has the central government responded to those stories?

Ms. SELIGSOHN: I think they're quite concerned. I mean, I think they realize they have to be much more public about the steps they are doing and they need to really focus on getting all the provinces in line, but I don't think they've been ignoring it from the beginning. I think they realize the air quality matters. And, you know, this is the proudest moment for China. They want the Olympics to be a huge, huge success. I think they'll do everything they need to do to make it look beautiful.

NORRIS: When you move about the city, you could feel the grit, you clearly see it at the end of the day when you wash your hands and you wash your face. You can literally feel it as you breathe. How was that change for you as you move about the city in recent months?

Ms. SELIGSOHN: I have to say, I first came to Beijing in 1984, and in those days, you know, when I moved around the city, I had chunks of coal in my hair. So it seems a lot cleaner than it used to be, actually.

NORRIS: Exaggeration? Chunks of coal, really?

Ms. SELIGSOHN: Chunks. Chunks. Chunks.

NORRIS: You know, beyond the Olympics, the overall goal is to really try to combat climate change, is this a step in the right direction or…

Ms. SELIGSOHN: Well, they're two different things. I mean, there's air quality in terms of particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, all of which impact the health of humans and ecosystems. So the reason you want to cut these is not because of global warming, but because it's bad for your health, it's bad for trees, it's bad for lakes in the form of acid rain and all these kind of things. And so this will obviously have an impact on that.

A number of things they're doing will also have an impact in reducing global warming. All these policies like getting people on mass transit. Improving building use of energy efficiency, bringing in more modern power plants, bringing in renewal energy, all these policies both clean the air and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which means they're good for climate change.

NORRIS: Melissa, that's Deborah Seligsohn, she's with the World Resources Institute. And as you heard, she's very optimistic, both about the Olympic Games and also about climate change in general, and that optimism was something that we heard over and over again in several conversations we had. But, again, I should repeat, this is an enormous country and combating climate change will also be an enormous challenge.

BLOCK: Okay Michele, great to talk to you. We look forward to seeing you when you're back next week.

NORRIS: I look forward to being back. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's our co-host Michele Norris talking to with us from Beijing, where she has been reporting for our Climate Connection series. You will be able to hear Michele's stories in April. And the following month, Robert, you and I are off to China.

SIEGEL: That's right. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will be doing a special week of China stories from May 19th to 23rd from the city of Chengdu in southwestern China.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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