Environmental degradation can be defined as deterioration of the Earth's natural surroundings as a result of excessive exploitation of the available resources. These resources include water, air, flora, fauna, soil etc. Basically, the life on the planet is interwoven to such an extent that a decrease in a particular attribute triggers a domino effect on all the other attributes dependent on it.

One form of environmental degradation is air pollution.

History of Air Pollution

Humans probably first experienced harm from air pollution when they built fires in poorly ventilated caves. Since then we have gone on to pollute more of the earth's surface. Until recently, environmental pollution problems have been local and minor because of the Earth's own ability to absorb and purify minor quantities of pollutants. The industrialization of society, the introduction of motorized vehicles, and the explosion of the population, are factors contributing toward the growing air pollution problem. At this time it is urgent that we find methods to clean up the air.

The primary air pollutants found in most urban areas are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter (both solid and liquid). These pollutants are dispersed throughout the world's atmosphere in concentrations high enough to gradually cause serious health problems. Serious health problems can occur quickly when air pollutants are concentrated, such as when massive injections of sulfur dioxide and suspended particulate matter are emitted by a large volcanic eruption.

Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is the main pollutant that is warming Earth. Though living things emit carbon dioxide when they breathe, carbon dioxide is widely considered to be a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants, and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas. In the past 150 years, such activities have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise its levels higher than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years.

Industrialized countries have worked to reduce levels of sulfur dioxide, smog, and smoke in order to improve people's health. But a result, not predicted until recently, is that the lower sulfur dioxide levels may actually make global warming worse. Just as sulfur dioxide from volcanoes can cool the planet by blocking sunlight, cutting the amount of the compound in the atmosphere lets more sunlight through, warming the Earth. This effect is exaggerated when elevated levels of other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap the additional heat.

Most people agree that to curb global warming, a variety of measures need to be taken. On a personal level, driving and flying less, recycling, and conservation reduces a person’s "carbon footprint"—the amount of carbon dioxide a person is responsible for putting into the atmosphere.

The sources of air pollution are both natural and human-based. As one might expect, humans have been producing increasing amounts of pollution as time has progressed, and they now account for the majority of pollutants released into the air.

Case Study: Air Pollution in China

According to the World Bank 16 of the worlds’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Many places smell like high-sulfur coal and leaded gasoline. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China’s own pollution standards.

The air pollution and smog in Beijing and Shanghai are sometimes so bad that the airports are shut down because of poor visibility. The air quality of Beijing is 16 times worse than New York City. Sometimes you can't even see building a few blocks away and blue sky is a rare sight. In Shanghai sometimes you can't see the street from the 5th floor window.

Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China. China gets 80 percent of electricity and 70 percent its total energy from coal, much of it polluting high-sulphur coal. Around six million tons of coal is burned everyday to power factories, heat homes and cook meals. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities.

China is the world’s leading source of sulfur dioxide. Levels of the pollutant in the air are comparable to Japan in the 1970s when air pollution was a major problem there. Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain. Sulfur dioxide emissions alone are though to cause damage equal to 12 percent of China’s GNP.

China’s emissions of nitrogen oxide—the main cause of urban smog—have increased 3.8 percent a year for 25 years. Unless things are dramatically changed nitrogen oxide emissions in China will double by 2020. Nitrogen oxide is released by power plants, heavy industry and cars.

Effects of Air Pollution in China

The engines of Chinese airlines have to be overhauled and replaced more frequently than elsewhere because operating in Chinese air corrodes the turbine blades faster.

The Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant was one of the Beijing worst polluters until it was relocated in 2006. At it peak it employed 10,000 workers and powered most of the city’s stoves and heating system. Chinese leaders were proud of the fact that smoke for the factory’s six chimneys never stopped in its 47-year history. After it was moved to Tangshan people that used to live near it in Beijing said it was the first time they could hang laundry outside without worrying about their clothes getting covered with black coal dust.

BEIJING, Aug. 25 — No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo.But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanization that requires colossal inputs of energy, almost all from coal, the most readily available, and dirtiest, source.

“It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden,” says Wang Jinnan, one of China’s leading environmental researchers. “There is pressure for change, but many people refuse to accept that we need a new approach so soon.”

China’s problem has become the world’s problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China’s coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, according to the Journal of Geophysical Research.

But pollution poses its own threat. Officials blame fetid air and water for thousands of episodes of social unrest. Health care costs have climbed sharply. Severe water shortages could turn more farmland into desert. And the unconstrained expansion of energy-intensive industries creates greater dependence on imported oil and dirty coal, meaning that environmental problems get harder and more expensive to address the longer they are unresolved.

The government has numerical targets for reducing emissions and conserving energy. Export subsidies for polluting industries have been phased out. Different campaigns have been started to close illegal coal mines and shutter some heavily polluting factories. Major initiatives are under way to develop clean energy sources like solar and wind power. And environmental regulation in Beijing, Shanghai and other leading cities has been tightened ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

Health Problems and Air Pollution in China

China has the world highest number of deaths attributed to air pollution. According to Chinese government statistics 300,000 die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly from heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 die from illnesses related to indoor pollution from poorly ventilated wood and coal stoves and toxic fumes from shoddy construction material. The air pollution death figure is expect to rise to 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020. The Chinese government has calculated that if the air quality in 210 medium and large cities were to be improved from “polluted” to “good” levels 178,000 lives could be saved.

Washington Post writer John Pomfret was based in Beijing for many years. When his family moved to Los Angeles afterwards his son’s asthma attacks and chronic chest infections stopped. When asked why he moved to Los Angeles he jokingly said “for the air.”

It has been reasoned that all forms of air pollution are 10 times more damaging to health than all forms of water pollution. According to the World Bank and WHO between 300,000 and 350,000 people die from outdoor air pollution and about 300,000 die from inside air pollution. Some think the true figure is much higher. Some estimate that indoor air pollution kills more than 700,000 people a year. The fine particles produced by coal-fired stoves exacerbates respiratory problems and is especially damaging to children’s lungs functions.

Air pollution causes premature births, low-birth weight babies, and depresses lungs functioning in otherwise healthy people. It has also been blamed for China's rising rates of cancer. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of death in China. In the last five years the number of deaths from the disease has risen 18.5 percent to 34 per 100,000 people.

Air pollution is also linked with a variety of respiratory aliments. Around some factories the asthma rate is 5 percent. It is estimated that 26 percent of all deaths in China are caused by respiratory illnesses (compared with 2 or 3 percent in the U.S.). Many people in Beijing and Shanghai get hacking coughs. In rural areas, respiratory disease is the number one killer. It is impossible to say how many are caused by air pollution though and how many are caused by smoking or some other cause.

Air pollution is believed to have significantly reduced crop production. Studies based on satellite imagery and ground-based observation suggest that particles of suspended pollutants scatter sun light over two thirds of eastern China resulting in harvests of rice and winter wheat that may be 5 to 30 percent less than if there was no pollution.

Combating Air Pollution in China

To reduce air pollution in Beijing a license plate system similar to the one used in the 2008 Olympics was put in place. According to the system cars with license plate numbers ending in 0 or 5 would have to stay off the road on Monday. Those with license plate numbers ending in 1 or 6 would have to stay off the road on Tuesday, those with 2 and 7 would stay off on Wednesday and so on through the five weekdays. The measures were credited with reducing pollution by 10 percent.

In Beijing and other cities electric lines have been brought to local neighborhood and people there have been encouraged to switch from coal-briquette-heated stoves to electric heaters. To make the change easier to accept the government covers two thirds of the cost of the heaters. One Beijing resident told the Times of London he favored the change, saying, “They say it is may be a little more expensive overall than coal, but it is a price I don’t mind paying to get our blue skies back.”








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