Beijing bicycle rental

+ Hazardous air pollution is a common issue in rapidly growing economies. China is showing that technology is a key part of the solution.

Since I wrote about Beijing’s pollution challenges two years ago, the city continues to experience chronic bouts of suffocating haze. The poor air affects the health of its citizens, reduces its ability to attract and retain talent, and regularly makes international headlines. Media attention recently focused on a time-lapse video I shot from my office window which showed a bank of smog dramatically enveloping the city within 20 minutes.

The episode led to much debate, particularly about how China can maintain economic growth while cutting pollution: if GDP growth stalls there will be global implications, and a risk of internal social unrest. China’s economy is huge: 6.7% per annum GDP growth is equivalent to adding the entire economy of The Netherlands every year. But the size of the breathable atmosphere above a city like Beijing remains constant. 

The government is serious about dealing with the problem and is investing heavily, enacting plans for reducing coal use and improving vehicle emission standards. More drastic initiatives include closing down heavy industry near Beijing when pollution is severe, and relocating it in the long term. However, the wider impacts need to be considered, not least job losses at both these factories and their supply chains. The situation is slowly improving: the 2016 pollution statistics showed a 10% fall in fine particulate matter levels (PM2.5) in Beijing during the year. Yet more must be done to enforce existing regulations; there should also be better incentives for businesses to become more sustainable. 

Technology can facilitate more rapid change. The possibility of switching to driverless electric cars is getting ever closer to reality and I believe such vehicles are more likely than crowded public transport to tempt the middle class away from the internal combustion engine in the medium term. 

The country has also seen a sudden resurgence in bicycle use following the introduction of several innovative and convenient bike-share schemes linked to mobile apps and GPS. This successful alternative to the car is an ideal last-mile mobility solution for a city in a permanent state of gridlock.  

Away from transport, many Chinese citizens now rely on apps which provide hourly air quality updates and forecasts. Air purifiers can now automatically switch on above certain AQI levels or at the start of the journey home from the office. One app even provides real-time emissions data for every factory in the country, making it possible to name and shame polluters. 

The polluting effects of rapid economic growth remain challenging. Bill Gates tweeted a revealing statistic about China’s staggering use of cement, whose manufacture is a key contributor to emissions. Building designers and engineers will need to optimise designs and even mimic nature to reduce resource use. 

The skies over China are not clear yet, but the innovative use of technology is giving me cause for optimism that the problem can be solved. What technological advances do you think will make the most difference?