Smog in China: Wind Patterns and Pollution

Air pollution is on everyone’s radar, not just in China, but throughout the world.

Recent news pieces are beginning to expose the extent to which air pollution is becoming a truly global problem. From London, to Delhi, to Beijing, public consciousness of the issue is higher than ever, and politicians worldwide are being forced to act.

Not a New Challenge

Of course, this is nothing new for China. Air pollution has long been an accepted product of economic growth, and for much of the last two decades, the country’s industrial activity situated largely in the East has left blankets of smog over the country’s most populated regions.

However, with rising affluence and expectations of China’s growing middle class, the issue of pollution is now something that individuals are less willing to take. This has prompted moves by government to slow coal-based production, place citywide quotas on driving, and push to move intensive industries and manufacturing further into central and western China.

The first two initiatives are ones we have addressed in previous blog posts, but the movement of heavy industry to central and west China is one that we wanted to dive into a little deeper into.

This movement has an undeniable impact on the most densely populated, most affluent cities of China’s eastern coast. Moving the highest-emitting industries away from megacities like Beijing reduces local pollution and relieves residents. But in reality, the transition westward merely externalizes the externalities, while placing pressure on other provinces to reduce emissions to protect their own local populations.

The question remains: How effective is this approach at reducing the pollution levels of the East?

The answer is: Not as much as you might think.

Understanding China’s Wind Patterns and Pollution

There is another, rather moot point at play here – China’s weather patterns and air transport conditions sweep air (and pollution) back to the eastern coast line, right where Beijing is positioned.

London and Los Angeles – high-profile examples of metropolises that successfully mitigated air pollution – were able move their power and factory production outside city boundaries to fully relieve more populated areas of toxic smog. China, on the other hand, does not have this luxury as wind patterns around the country collect and carry pollution back towards the East regardless.

Take a look at the following simulations of the wind patterns that originate from the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts.

Air Pollution Simulation Wind Gobi - Collective Responsibility
Air Transport Simulations originating from the Gobi (above) and Talimakan (below) deserts. Source: Personal communication with Professor D.E. Shallcross.
Wind Air Pollution Simulation - Collective Responsibility

As these simulations demonstrate, China’s transport patterns across the north and northeast regions of the Asian continent drive air and potential pollution in waves over the east coast and other regions on the way to the Pacific. Unfortunately, the situation is not much better regarding the southern regions of the country, as South Asian wind currents bring air northward and eastward to China’s East Coast as well.

Air Pollution Simulation Wind - Collective Responsibility
Air Transport Simulations originating from South East Asia. Source: Personal communication with Professor D.E. Shallcross.

Winds of Change? The Reality

So what does this mean for China?

Unfortunately, the wind patterns shown in these simulations prove mere factory relocation is not the silver bullet to eastern China’s air pollution problems. While moving the bulk of emissions production westward does provide respite for the country’s most populated areas, it only compounds the issue in the central and western regions – and due to these air transport patterns, fails to fully mitigate the impact on the East as well.

It means that further focus is going to be needed on real solutions, including:

  • Further diversifying the energy mix away from coal dependency,
  • Innovating to resolve demand-side inefficiencies, and
  • Implementing measures to protect current urban and rural populations from the harms of smog.

Air pollution is now an issue that can no longer be ignored in China and the rest of the world, and it will require concrete action to overcome – beyond mere shifting of emissions sources.

If these issues interest you, check out our Air Pollution and Energy in China reports, in which we examine these topics in greater detail. You can find Collective’s past articles under our blog’s Air Pollution tag.

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