Fewer sandstorms give hope for cleaner air

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 23, 2014
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Portable PM2.5 attract visitors at an exhibition of air purifiers and anti-bacterial disinfectors at the National Agriculture Exhibition Center in Beijing on April 14, as heavy smog continues to shroud the capital. [Photo/China Daily]

Portable PM2.5 attract visitors at an exhibition of air purifiers and anti-bacterial disinfectors at the National Agriculture Exhibition Center in Beijing on April 14, as heavy smog continues to shroud the capital. [Photo/China Daily]

It is depressing being subjected to Beijing's pollution. The World Health Organization standards for the most harmful particles, PM2.5, say that 20 is the recommended maximum safe level, but we are so used to the stratospheric measurements from both the Beijing government and the US Embassy that even my iPhone app doesn't set off alarm bells until the benchmark of 200 is reached. Pollution masks and expensive air filters are now an increasingly visible everyday fashion accessory for most foreigners and many Chinese. Yet as many folks relocate from Beijing, and many more think of doing so, I think of sandstorms and have hope!

When I first came to Beijing a decade ago I dreaded springtime, normally my favorite season. It wasn't only the strong winds that could literally bowl a person over, but the sandstorms that invariably accompanied the blasts, blocked our air passages, buffed the shiny finishes off our cars and caused people to wear all sorts of face coverings making them look like something from a Halloween horror movie.

There haven't been any appreciable sandstorms now for a number of years. While we may suffer from air-pocalypse at least we haven't recently fallen victim to "sand-ageddon" as British tabloids called it earlier this year when sand from the Sahara desert, 3,000 kilometers away, covered cars and people alike in Britain.

There were prodigious winds recently that all but blew me over, no easy task. Yet, remarkably, I couldn't detect a grain of sand. The reason that I am hopeful is that this result was no accident, but due to the hard work of governmental and scientific experts who reversed desertification of previously green areas and reclaimed them by planting trees and grasses, and using other more ingenious homegrown methods.

Remarkably, 2.6 million square kilometers, more than one-quarter of China's total land area, are deserts. It is scant wonder then that China is the world's leader in desertification. And it comes as no surprise that in 2002 China enacted the world's first law on controlling and preventing desertification. In fact, by 2020 the country plans to reclaim 200,000 square kilometers of desert.

Using conventional technology, China, like other affected countries, plants grasses and trees to anchor the sand and keep it in place. This helps, but the winds can still carry grains of sand aloft. China has now gone to the next level and pioneered the use of cyanobacteria which can create a biocrust which is thick enough to help promote topsoil and prevent erosion, even in the harsh desert environment.

So when I think of air pollution, I know that it will one day be solved, and harbor some hope it will be sooner rather than later. Estimates range from five to fifty years before meaningful change can occur and the costs are staggering. Whole industries will have to be uprooted and the mix of energy resources will have to be radically changed.

Most youngsters today think of London fog as an upscale fashion brand. Yet after World War II the English capital was plagued by extreme pollution, even worse than we experience on most bad days, much of it, as here, from burning dirty coal. Today, however, London is a breath of fresh air albeit after many years, numerous laws and regulations, and billions of pounds sterling in anti-pollution equipment later.

Yet thinking back to the 2008 Olympics when Beijing and surrounding polluting factories and power generators were stopped, blue sky days returned. So we know that change is possible.

My personal hope is that based on the experience of China's conquest of sandstorms, in part by the use of novel technologies, the air pollution will be controlled in the not too distant future.

The author is a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.

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