The Nitty-Gritty: A Rundown of China’s Emissions Issue

While the rest of the world debates the impact of carbon emissions and the need to create binding agreements, China’s battle with air pollution has grown tangible enough to effectively catalyze stakeholders into action. With only six of China’s cities meeting the second tier of the National Environmental Air Quality Standards (NEAQS) in 2015, air pollution has become one of the biggest challenges and signs that economic growth is unsustainable.

While accepting that China’s emissions issue exists is not difficult, fully comprehending the causes and effects of the can be a bit more challenging. Having recently released a report on “Air Pollution in China,” we at Collective present an overview of pollutant sources inherent in national trends of urbanization, as well as a rundown of the types of pollutants and their effects.

The broad dilemma of air pollution has our attention. Now, the nitty-gritty heart of the matter needs our understanding. Let’s break this down.

King Coal

In 2013, coal accounted for 66% of China’s overall energy consumption — 42% higher than the world average, making it the most coal-dependent country among the world’s top energy consumers. Despite China’s large share in the energy mix, coal consumption growth has reduced in recent years. Recent factory closures and stalled capacity developments represent progressive steps towards a serious slowdown in coal consumption, coal’s overall importance to energy production will likely cause it to remain a vital part of the energy mix in the coming decades.


China-US Auto Ownership - Collective Responsibility
An illustration of the potential future of China’s growing vehicle ownership rates. Image Credit: COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

China has become the world’s largest new automobile market, and growing levels of vehicle ownership has increased congestion and localized pollution levels in many of China’s first- and second-tier cities. To combat this, cities are increasing the cost of license plates, and some have even implemented policies that ban driving cars with odd or even plates by day in an attempt to reduce emissions. Additionally, trucks, ships, and ports are major contributors to emissions and pollution — ports are especially large contributors, particularly for SO2, through the heavy use of lower-cost, dirtier “bunker” fuel. While legislation is being enacted in an attempt to counter these sources within coastal regions, considerable work still needs to be done in this area.

Urban Infrastructure

As China’s populous has become more and more urbanized, it has seen its overall energy demand increase dramatically. As cities develop and an expected 300 million more residents enter urban centers, individual energy consumption will increase, placing greater pressure on energy systems to satisfy the needs of the population. The resulting high levels of air pollution are born from a variety of sources, including direct emissions from truck traffic and dust particles from construction, as well as indirect emissions of factor and energy processes inherent to budding industrialization. Without significant developments in building practices, externalities will continue to grow and negatively impact urban populations.


The manufacturing industry, so important to China’s economic rise, has a major impact on the level of atmospheric pollution through the indirect and direct effect that it has. Indirect emissions rise through the widespread energy and electricity use required for processes such as aluminum smelting, much of which are satisfied through coal burning. Direct emissions from these industrial processes, on the other hand, contribute significantly to reductions in ambient air quality. China’s current economic transition and the easing of manufacturing processes will reduce this contribution, but further efficiency developments and attention are necessary to truly resolve the growing problem in China’s cities.

Emissions: A Breakdown

Narrowing down in scope from the above macro-level sources of China’s air pollution, a more palpable arena to assess the nature and danger of emissions rests in its components at the micro-level.

China’s pollution is mainly composed of five subcomponents: particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide. Each of these pollutants come from a variety of sources, complicating the challenges to finding solutions to these issues. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of emissions and their effects on the health of people and the environment is critical to formulating effective macro-level policies and innovations to reduce overall risk.

Emission Sources Graphic - Air Pollution Emissions - Collective Responsibility
A breakdown of industrial sources of emissions contributing to China’s air pollution dilemma. Image Credit: COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
  1. Particulate matters (PM) are tiny particles of solid matter suspended in gas or liquid and can be composed of soot, acids, chemicals, metals, soil, and dust. Smaller particles of pollution, like the infamous PM2.5 and PM10,  that can slip past mucus and cilia in the nose and throat can enter the lungs and the bloodstream, causing various breathing ailments, cancers, cardiovascular issues, birth defects, and premature death.
  2. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a major pollutant that can enter into the human respiratory system and cause respiratory diseases such as bronchitis. Its main sources are coal and gasoline. SO2 can lower infant birth weight and increase the rate of birth mortality. Environmentally, when mixed with water, it forms acid rain, which is a major cause of deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
  3. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is often produced by power plants, heating furnaces and the engines of ships and vehicles. It passes through the respiratory bronchi and alveoli and may disrupt the respiratory function and cause pulmonary emphysema.
  4. Ozone (O3) is beneficial when high up in the atmosphere but can be extremely harmful when low in the atmosphere. It is a main component of smog and can cause various respiratory diseases such as asthma.
  5. Carbon monoxide (CO) can be highly toxic when in higher doses. It is often produced by internal combustion engines and from the combustion of fuels, including coal, natural gas, oil, and propane. CO can result in headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and fatigue.

There is no one-fix solution to the impacts of myriad chemicals that are the result of energy production, industrial processes, and consumption. Prevention measures should be both reactionary to prevent current harm through the use of masks and air filters, but also proactive by addressing the sources of emissions and investing in cleaner technologies throughout the emissions chain. Combining these forms of action will reduce atmospheric pollutant levels and best mitigate negative health and environmental impacts.

For more insights into China’s emissions, stakeholder concerns, and the tangible externalities private actors need to address, stay tuned for our upcoming series of blog articles on the topic. You can also download Collective’s recently-released report on Air Pollution in China here.

This article was prepared from Collective’s air pollution report by Gabrielle Williams, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.

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