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Air Pollution in Beijing and the Decision-Making Bias Research Paper


Severe air pollution in Beijing did not become a subject of worldwide concern and discussion until the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which brought the issue to the attention of the global public due to the immense amount of publicity associated with the event (BBC). Ever since then, both the local government and international organizations, such as Greenpeace and WHO have tried to implement various tactics in order to achieve a decrease in air pollution levels. Most of the efforts, however, have shown temporary results (BBC). Latest studies suggest that the lack of substantial effect is due to the wrong approach to the issue.

For instance, most of the efforts are focused solely on eliminating pollution in Beijing, whereas research suggests that “air quality in the Beijing region would substantially benefit from reducing residential sector emissions from both within Beijing and within surrounding provinces” (Liu et al. 7760). Moreover, despite the fact that many of the government’s strategies are aimed at reducing the damage from motor vehicles and power plants, household emissions remain one of the leading causes of air pollution in Beijing: “Household emissions, mostly from space heating and cooking with solid fuels, are an important and generally unrecognized source of ambient air pollution in China and other developing countries” (Liu et al. 7556).

The aim of an effective strategy for decreasing the pollution, therefore, would be to target the households as the primary source of emissions: “particles such as smoke, soot and dust floating in air – could be cut by almost half if houses were considered in regional emission plans” (Ritchie par. 3). The involvement of households with the proposed environmental management tactics would be impossible to achieve without addressing decision-making biases that cause the people to contribute to the issues; effective strategy would involve promoting awareness, introducing new sources of fuel at discounted rates, compromising on the heating temperatures with the citizens, as well as offering new, environmentally-friendly heating options.

Background and the History of Air Pollution in Beijing

The main reason for China’s air pollution is the rapid urbanization which started in the late twentieth century: “Over the past 30 years, China has experienced rapid economic growth, accompanied by accelerating urbanization, which has increased consumption of fossil fuels and worsened air quality” (Liu et al. 7556). The development of large factories and the industry sector caused a massive increase in the use of coal, which, along with the popularization of cars, affected the air quality: “In 1998, Beijing was highly dependent on coal for its energy needs, with the annual coal consumption reaching as high as 28 million tonnes” (UNEP ix).

Ever since then, the government has been trying to limit the use of coal by the industry sector to decrease the pollution, and the efforts achieved some success. For instance, “The proportion of coal consumption in total energy consumption decreased from 54 per cent in 1998 to 25 per cent in 2012 […] the proportion of natural gas, imported electricity and other clean sources of energy in total energy consumption increased from 19 per cent to 44 per cent” (UNEP x), which helped to the lower level of pollution overall: “In 2013, annual concentrations of SO2, NO2, and PM10 were 26.5 μg/m3, 56.0 μg/m3, and 108 μg/m respectively, which was equivalent to respective reductions of 78 per cent, 24 per cent and 42 per cent, when compared with the levels in 1998” (UNEP 7).

However, the level of fine particles PM2.5 stays critically high despite these improvements, especially in the winter season: “the average daily concentration of the smallest particulates – those that can lodge deeply in the lungs and trigger chronic and acute respiratory illness, heart disease and lung cancer – is more than six times what the World Health Organization regards as safe” (PHYS par. 3). The primary cause for this is the use of dirty fuels, including coal, for space heating and cooking, a source of pollution that has been overlooked by most of the government’s pollution management policies until recently (Climate Home), even though “residential sources contribute far more to primary PM2.5 emissions annually in Beijing and the surrounding region than the transportation and power sectors combined and, in winter, more than industry” (Liu et al. 7760).

Many scholars agree that it would be impossible to address the air pollution in Beijing without paying particular attention to the control of household emissions (Ritchie par. 1), as this factor would lead to a steep decrease in particulate levels: “eliminating household emissions alone would reduce levels of small particulate pollution in the air over Beijing in winter by about 22 percent” (PHYS par. 10). It is, therefore, essential to include the residents of Beijing in the pollution management in order to change the heating schemes and to reduce emissions. An effective policy targeting the households, however, has to acknowledge the biases in people’s decision-making that cause the residents to contribute to the pollution problem in the first place.

Decision-Making Biases Involved

There are several significant biases that affect the way people think about the pollution itself and, most importantly, about their influence on the issue. Perhaps the most important bias is the present bias, which causes the people to attribute more value to the present than to the long-term effects of their actions. When applied to the issue of house emissions in Beijing, this bias affects the decision of the people to set higher temperatures in their residences for the winter heating season. People choose their immediate comfort over the option of keeping a lower temperature setting and hence decreasing the pollution. Secondly, the anchoring bias affects the people’s perception of the issue. The initial opinion on the sources of pollution, as shown above, was that the major contributors are motor vehicles and the industry sector, whereas the importance of the dangerous effect of residential emissions has not been discussed till the recent years (Liu et al. 7556).

The anchoring bias causes the people to focus on the initial information and disregard the importance of the new research, thus affecting their decision to keep high-temperature settings and use dirty fuels. Finally, optimism bias is another factor contributing to the decision-making failures of Beijing residents. The people underestimate their contribution to the issue of air pollution, as well as the influence of air pollution on their health and safety, thinking that it is not as bad as it is said to be. Finally, the Ostrich effect is a phenomenon that causes the people to deny the issues, even if they are serious. A lot of the citizens in Beijing do not address the air pollution in any way, preferring to leave it up to the government and environmental organizations to deal with it. All of these factors, therefore, not only cause the people to contribute to the pollution but also make it more difficult for the government and private structures to combat the issue of household emissions. The efficiency of the solutions proposed by both parties, therefore, depends on whether or not they address the residents’ decision-making process and the biases that contribute to the issue.

Government Policy: Raise Awareness to Compromise on Temperature Levels

The policy for the government would consist of two steps. Firstly, it would be essential to raise awareness both of the actual impact of the household fuel use on the levels of pollution and on the health dangers posed by the air pollution, both immediate and long-term. For instance, according to Liu et al., exposure to pollution causes more premature deaths than smoking and is the second highest risk factor: “direct household exposure to air pollution from solid fuels was responsible for ∼0.8 million premature deaths in China in 2013, about equal to the number of premature deaths from ambient particle pollution. Together, they make up the second largest risk factor in the country, ranked between high blood pressure and smoking” (7556).

The data of the World Health Organization (WHO) also shows significant dangers of the exposure to the indoor pollution all around the world. For instance, “the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer” (WHO). Specifically, deaths from ischaemic heart disease account for 40% of the total deaths caused by outdoor pollution and for 26% of the deaths resulting from indoor pollution. The figures are 40% and 34% for stroke, 11% and 22% for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 6% in both cases for lung cancer (WHO). Moreover, exposure to household emissions is also one of the leading causes of childhood pneumonia: “Over half of deaths among children less than 5 years old from acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) are due to particulate matter inhaled from indoor air pollution from household solid fuels” (WHO).

It might seem that the present bias would cause the people to disregard such long-term effects, which is why it is important to explain that the benefits from the decrease in pollution are actually immediate. For example, “several studies demonstrating that if you do a temporary intervention to bring the air pollution down, [and] measure cardiovascular and respiratory health indicators in young healthy people, all those indicators significantly improve” (BBC par. 10). Furthermore, “Women whose pregnancy was during those eight weeks of improved air quality got babies with a significantly higher birth weight, and we have a large database to show that in general if your birth weight is higher, your later life is healthier” (BBC par. 11). Overall, it is essential to state that the effects of challenging the household emissions would be seen very shortly after the action is taken.

Once the public understands the effect of pollution on their health, it would be much easier to get the people to cooperate with the government on addressing the issue. The second step of the policy would be to negotiate with the households to set a maximum temperature level allowed during the winter heating season. This would have a substantial effect on the emissions as the needs for heating are overestimated in many households. As Cai et al. argue, during the four-month heating season the outside air temperature in Beijing is not that low (2), meaning that there is no need for the considerable use of heating. The government can set a heating level at which the indoor temperature is at a comfortably low level and offer the households to sign a contract which would make it obligatory for them to keep the stipulated heating level and therefore not to waste heat where it is not necessary. Additional benefits for those who sign the contract could include discounts on power or other services, as well as encouragement from local communities, such as special door badges.

The primary advantage of such policy is that it can help to address the very reason of the pollution caused by households, which is the existence of certain biases in people’s decision-making process. For instance, the rise of awareness would emphasize the impact of the household emissions, thus proving the negative effect of people’s actions to those affected by the positivity and anchoring biases. By highlighting the immediate effects of pollution control, on the other hand, the government would address the present bias, whereas the engagement of the community would make it hard for people to avoid the topic, decreasing the Ostrich effect. Moreover, the position of the government would not be paternalist, and all the contracts would be signed out of the people’s own will, which would reduce the possibility of a negative response from the society.

One significant disadvantage, on the other hand, is the difficulty of implementation. As BBC notes, “The Chinese system is very decentralised: the provincial and local city authorities have a lot of power. And it is not a simple matter of the central government in Beijing pressing a button and all the laws are enforced” (par. 29). Therefore, the realization of the policy would be passed from the central to local governments, making it harder to control its implementation. Another limitation would be the cost of the policy: in order to motivate the people to sign the contracts, the benefits offered should be substantial. And thus, even though the policy would be “more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains” (WHO), the initial costs of the policy might be quite high. Finally, the decrease in temperature would not eliminate the dangers posed by the pollutions; this policy is a way of mitigating the negative effects of the issue rather than of solving it.

Private Policy: Achieving Long-Term Results by Changing the Energy Source

The end goal, therefore, would be to eliminate the use of coal in space heating altogether. As Wang and Hao note, “the total coal consumption should be limited in heavily polluted regions such as Beijing and surrounding areas intensive coal combustion emits a large amount of air pollutants and results in the regional air pollution complex” (8). However, this can only be achieved by the introduction of a new, safer energy source to be used by the households: “Adjusting energy structure and speeding up the development of solar energy, wind energy, nuclear power, hydropower and other clean energies, will significantly reduce emissions of air pollutants” (Wang & Hao 8). Private construction companies and environmental organizations could collaborate to develop the necessary technology and to make it available for the households.

According to some studies, the most cost-effective option out of the proposed sources would be the solar heating: “Using solar energy for active heating in rural areas of northern China, the combination of passive solar energy house and solar energy floor radiant heating system could enhance utilization efficiency of solar energy and save non-renewable energy as much as possible” (Cai et al. 1). Eventually, the use of solar heating could help to stop the use of coal completely without affecting the comfort and the needs of the population: there would be no need for a temperature limit for the solar heating systems, and thus the residents would be able to decide on the comfortable heating level with no adverse effect on the environment, even in case of overheating. Moreover, as some of the research suggests, “Floor heating systems are becoming increasingly popular since they could provide a more comfortable indoor thermal environment than convective heating systems. Furthermore, the floor heating systems provide the same comfort when the indoor temperature is 2-3°C lower than convective heating systems, which gets a good compromise between energy consumption and thermal comfort” (Zhihua et al. 1-2).

The crucial advantage of this approach is the elimination of household emissions forever, which would significantly improve the air quality: “climate-friendly measures, e.g., energy efficiency improvements, co-generation of heat and power, fuel substitution, integrated coal gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants, result in lower emissions of SO2, NOx and PM2.5 at no additional costs” (Wang & Hao 12). Another advantage is the possibility of integrating solar heating into the design of the building to ensure coherency: “When building and solar equipments work together in a harmony relationship, it will do nothing bad to the beauty of building, and also save energy, make the building develop to the direction of functionalization and ecologicalization” (Cai et al. 3).

There are, however, some serious drawbacks to the policy. First of all, despite the fact that “Over the past ten years, an integrated system of large solar heating including district heating has had a rapid development in engineering applications” (Zhihua et al. 1), there are still no successful examples of the implementation of solar heating in cities on a large scale. Furthermore, whereas the inclusion of solar heating systems into the new building structures is readily achievable, it is still unclear whether it would be possible to apply solar heating systems to the existing buildings without damaging the city’s appearance. In addition, more incentives either from the building companies or the government would be required to compensate for the high price of new technology and its installation.

Conclusion

Overall, it is clear that the household emissions contribute to the air pollution in Beijing and therefore have to be addressed through a proper policy which would take into account the decision-making issues that led to the problem. However, it is also important that any measures taken would be applied not only to Beijing but also to the surrounding areas: “A comprehensive control policy focused on multiple source categories at both the local and regional levels is necessary to mitigate the regional air pollution issue in China” (Wang & Hao 5). The combination of public and private strategies would ensure the decrease in the level of emissions, thus helping China to reach its goal of lowering the air pollution level in the upcoming years (Climate Home par. 2) by significantly reducing the overall pollution and its damaging effects on health and environment.

Works Cited

Cai, Wei, Lina Zhang, Xubo Yu, and Danjun Wang. “A Study on Solar Energy Heating for Residential Buildings in Small Village.” Asia-Pacific Power and Energy Engineering Conference, 2010, pp. 1-4. IEEE Xplore Digital Library, Web.

“China’s Five Year Plan to Radically Tighten Air Pollution Targets.” Climate Home. 2016, Web.

PHYS, 2016, Web.

Li, Wanxin, Jieyan Liu, and Duoduo Li. “Getting Their Voices Heard: Three Cases of Public Participation in Environmental Protection in China.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 98, 2012: pp. 65-72.

Liu, Jun, Denise L. Mauzerall, Qi Chen, Qiang Zhang, Yu Songa, Wei Peng, Zbigniew Klimont, Xinghua Qiu, Shiqiu Zhang, Min Hu, Weili Lin, Kirk R. Smith, and Tong Zhu. “Air Pollutant Emissions from Chinese Households: A Major and Underappreciated Ambient Pollution Source.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.28 (2016): 7756-7761.

Ritchie, Phil. “Stamp Out Household Fuels to Help Fix China’s Air Pollution Woes.” Cosmos Magazine, 2016, Web.

UNEP. “A Review of Air Pollution Control in Beijing: 1998-2013.” United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2016, Web.

Wang, Shuxiao, and Jiming Hao. “Air Quality Management in China: Issues, Challenges, and Options.” Journal of Environmental Sciences, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012: pp. 2–13.

WHO, 2016, Web.

Zhihua, Zhou, Zhang Xinmiao, Tan Zichao, and Liang Mengkuan. “Practical Study on Heating by Solar in China.” International Conference on Advances in Energy Engineering, 2010, pp. 65-68. IEEE Xplore Digital Library, doi: 10.1109/ICAEE.2010.5557614.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 1). Air Pollution in Beijing and the Decision-Making Bias. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/air-pollution-in-beijing-and-the-decision-making-bias/

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