Solutions to Air Pollution in China


00_Project Brief

As many cities and countries around the world grow and develop, many turn towards mass industrialization, hoping that in following the footsteps of the ‘world superpowers’, they too can become a strong nation. The cause for this mass industrialization is strongly tied to a deeply rooted misconception that development is synonymous to rapid economic growth; and since rapid economic growth can most easily be achieved by mass production, many rising and developing countries have turned towards industrialization.

One such country is China.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping enacted the new Open Door Policy in an attempt to provide a catalyst for China’s economic growth. And it worked – due to a combination of low labor costs and loose industrial regulations, foreign companies flocked to China to greatly increase their credit margin; and as the factories went up, so did the power plants to fuel them; and as a developing country referencing the industrial histories of modern superpowers, what cheaper, quicker, and dirtier of a power source to turn to than coal.

Through the next few decades, we see that China’s economy has more than quadrupled. Since the 1950s, China has more than doubled its population from 600, to over 1350 million despite the one-child policy.

Following western history, China also grew a large automotive industry, and car ownership soared. Paired together with years of building under-regulated factories and cheap coal plants, China is dealing with heavy fallout to do with extreme air pollution. This pollution has been estimated to cause between 1.2 and 1.6 million deaths a year, as small particles in the air are known to cause cancer, pulmonary issues, and cardiac problems. In the past years, the pollution and smog has become such a big issue that schools are closed down and planes remain grounded.

01_China’s “Airpocalypse” of 2013

With most of China powered by coal and its streets dominated by motor vehicles, heavy smog settled on China’s capital of Beijing in January 2013. When measured on the globally standardized Air Quality Index (AQI), Beijing measured in at almost 800 on a scale where 100 is deemed unhealthy and 400 extremely hazardous. What made this pollution even worse was that it was comprised of relatively high concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 particles, irritants and particles so small they can easily be inhaled and are known to cause a plethora of terminal illnesses. The concentration of these particles was measured at 900μg per m3, 40x the level the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe.

It is important to note that this was by no means an isolated incident. Building up to and after this incident, many cities in China (Beijing included) have had ‘red alert’ days, days where the smog is so bad that schools are cancelled and students and young adults are encouraged to stay indoors. In 2014, Beijing was over-polluted 175 days in the year; in Tianjin, 197 days; Shenyang, 152 days; Shijiazhuang, 264 days… the list goes on.

It is unfair however, to say that China has done nothing to ameliorate the issue. Since 2013, total reported Carbon Dioxide emissions for China has been on the decline. From establishing its first carbon market shortly after the “airpocalypse” was internationally publicized in 2013, to phasing out the four main coal power plants in Beijing and replacing them with NG plants, China has definitely shown at least some willingness to make changes in their economy to curb their ever-worsening environmental issues.

However it is also valid to question the true intents of the country. Although having halted the construction of various coal power and heating plants throughout the Hubei provinces, China began to build a series of coal plants in order to accommodate for a large influx of heavy industry, primarily to meet the international demand of steel. This perhaps goes to show that China still plans to push and strongly back its economic agenda, sacrificing the environment to do so. As such, it is important to note that the pollution issue in Beijing has yet to be resolved.

A Diagram showing the number and location of Coal Fired Power Plants in and around China
A Diagram showing the number and location of Coal Fired Power Plants in and around China

02_The Projections

In China’s energy plans published at the end of 2014, it plans to cap coal use to 62% of its total primary energy consumption (66% in 2012) by 2020. The country also plans on increasing its Natural Gas use by 5% up to 10% in the same time frame. In addition, the country’s plans forward aim to raise non-fossil-fuel energy consumption to 15% (compared to its 2012 ~10%). Is this going to be enough?

Looking at China’s behavior, it is apparent that the country does not intend to sacrifice economic growth for environmental protection. As such, we have used a polynomial curve to approximate the energy consumption of China in the year 2020. This value would be around 7000TWh. So the question is… if 10% of that was generated by NGCC and 62% by coal, how many Tonnes of carbon dioxide would China produce in 2020?

NGCC (2.52 x 1012MJ):
Efficiency = 40%+60%(35%) ≈ 60% efficient
if burning 1MJ of NG creates 15g(C),
then it creates 15 x (44/12) g(CO2)/MJ≈ 55 g(CO2)/MJ
[55 g(CO2)/MJ] /60% x (2.52 x 1012MJ) ≈ 2.31 x 1011kg(CO2)

Coal (1.56 x 1013MJ):
Efficiency = 35%
if burning 1MJ of Coal produces 25g(C),
then it creates 25 x (44/12) g(CO2)/MJ ≈ 92 g(CO2)/MJ
[92 g(CO2)/MJ] /35% x (1.56 x 1013 MJ) ≈ 4.10×1012 kg(CO2)

Total CO2 = 4.33 x 1012 kg = 4.33 Gt

Although its a significant improvement from its current emissions, this is still a significant amount of Carbon Dioxide, especially when you take into account that in most modern economies, less than 50% of Carbon Dioxide emissions originate from electricity generation (for China it is probably even less due to its industrial-focused economy).

Moreover, whatever is done to moderate the amount of Carbon Dioxide emitted in future years fails to address the current most pressing issue: the amount of Carbon Dioxide already existing in areas all over China, which poses as both social issues and health concerns.



Population of China: 1.38 billion
Life Expectancy: 74 (Male, 2013), 77 (Female, 2013)
Infant mortality rate: 9.5/1000
Official Language: mandarin

The population pyramid (shown left) is reflects the unique age distribution of China. Due to its one-child policy enacted in 1979, there is currently a sizable working class, though the next generation will be lacking in comparison. This issue is further affected by the fact that due to the high amount of pollutants in the air, many children die or are affected by respiratory illnesses, possibly inhibiting their ability to work in the future. As such, it is quite reasonable to say perhaps that due to all the pollutants int he air, China is sacrificing its economy of the future for rapid economic development in the current time frame.

Beijing on a 'red pollution warning day' vs. 'good day'
Beijing on a ‘red pollution warning day’ vs. ‘good day’

04_The Proposal

As explained above, high levels of pollution brings with it a plethora of economic, societal, and environmental detriments, including various illnesses leading to a decrease in numbers in the working class, possibly harming a country’s economy and production. Although since China seems adamant to continue its economic growth through strong industrial means, the issue must be solved on three fronts:

  1. Future Management through Policy: cutting down Carbon Dioxide emissions at the source, investing more into renewable sources or strengthening regulations so fossil fuel plants and factories emit less Carbon Dioxide into the air. This process has been started by the government, as explained above, though whether they are doing enough is a good question.
  2. Fixing the Present: As explained above, China has already polluted strongly many areas all over the nation, concentrated in the north due to clumps of industry. Alleviating air pollution issues by cleaning and filtering polluted air will create a better living environment, preventing illnesses from developing.
  3. A More Sustainable Future: Assuming China will continue to grow and expand its economy (especially with the phasing out of the One Child Policy), future developments, cities, and industrial zones should be developed with sustainability in mind, minimizing the amount of indirect and direct carbon missions through good design: minimizing energy use on the home scale, and providing natural environments to sequester carbon on the city and regional scales.

Through research, we’ve come up with various solutions to each of these issues, developing better living environments for those living in China.

a) Carmen Trudell’s Breathe Brick

Different methods in which air can be drawn into a building with a breathe-brick wall.
Different methods in which air can be drawn into a building with a breathe-brick wall.
Modular Design: how breathe bricks can efficiently stack to form an insinuative load bearing wall.
Modular Design: how breathe bricks can efficiently stack to form an insinuative load bearing wall.

The product would be easy to construct and without without electricity for developing countries to use as part of their building strategies. The Breath Brick is inspired by vacuum cleaners that spin air through a vortex to separate particles. It is basically a cyclone inside a wall that allows for particles to settle in before air is pushed into the building envelope and supply it to the HVAC system or into the building directly. Cal Poly engineering students constructed a test wall of the Breathe brick and blasted cornstarch and flower against the prototype. The units captured 30% of the fine particles (2.5 microns or smaller) and 100% of the course particles (10 microns and larger).

b) Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Tower

The Smog Tower - currently being tested in Beijing. It uses Ionic charges to filter carbon and small particulate matter out of the air.
The Smog Tower – currently being tested in Beijing. It uses Ionic charges to filter carbon and small particulate matter out of the air.

Another technological invention to clean air is Daan Roosegaarde’s smog free tower, which has been implemented in Beijing and supported by China’s ministry for Environmental Protection. The Tower uses ion technology to filter out smog. It cleans 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour and runs on green wind energy, using only around 1170 Watts. Additionally, limited edition rings made of the particulates filtered, are sold to spread public awareness of the importance of clean air. Though the invention has minuscule physical impact on overall air quality in China, it makes a statement that demands for political change and regulations that could be implemented to regulate emissions.

c) Zero Energy Buildings

Environmental Design Strategies – Designing a net zero building

Building with the amount of energy used is equal to the amount of renewable energy produced onsite. As shown in the diagram above, this issue is often tackled on two fronts: firstly minimizing the amount of operational energy required to run the building, then producing energy on site through use of small wind turbines, Photo Voltaic panels, etc. This lowers the load on fossil fuel power plants, minimizing the amount of coal they have to burn and thus the amount of carbon dioxide they emit.

d) Governmental Responses

Though these building technologies are helpful in mediating poor air quality, bigger change must come from societal responses. This means direct change from governmental regulation of business’ CO2 emissions. China must become stricter with fining businesses for releasing harmful chemicals into the air and creating a cap amount of total CO2 emissions allowed per businesses. Additionally, businesses must filter our particulate matter from the emission source for maximum efficiency. Regulations must enforce factories to filter exhaust air and maintain a standard for how clean that exhaust air has to be. Tackling the problem from the root source is the most efficient way in permanently stopping air pollution.


Sarah Pagan is a third year architecture major and sustainable environments minor. She is interested in net positive and living buildings. She is originally from San Jose, California, but will be studying abroad in Florence for ten months next year.

Helen Hoang is a third year architecture student and is from San Jose, California. She is interested in alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Her hobbies include gardening, art, and cooking.

Charles Lam is a third year architecture student pursuing an architectural engineering minor. Being from Hong Kong, a huge metropolitan hub on the South-eastern coast of China, he is extremely interested in how cities can develop and grow without creating a polluting environment. His studies in architecture have brought him closer to understanding net-zero, or even ‘negative energy buildings’, which produces far more than they consume. Charles has strong interests in all things design, and is currently extremely interested in green cities, walkable cities, and city planning concepts in general.

Derek Klein is a 5th year general engineering major concentrating in alternative energy. He is interested in wind energy. From San Diego California he likes to play tennis, basketball, and piano in his free time.


Average sulfate, carbon monoxide and black carbon concentrations went down by 0.3% to 0.9% when looking at population-weighted averages. But this all comes at a cost: In the western United States and populous Chinese regions, air quality went down.

Black carbon has been linked to asthma as well as diseases such as cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease. Rain doesn’t easily clear it from the atmosphere, so it hangs around and travels far.

Researchers found that 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide and 17% of black carbon from Chinese emissions were linked to producing goods for export.
About 21% of export-related emissions from China, for each of these pollutants, came from exports that went from China to the United States.

However these pollutants emitted by china, although unlikely to cause disease in the United States, will add to the issue of global warming, affecting all who inhabit our earth.

XX_ Sources Referenced