Few­er­sand­storms give­hope­for cleaner air

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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, nor­mal­lymy 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 “sandaged­don” 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 blewme over, no easy task. Yet, re­mark­ably, I couldn’t de­tect a grain of sand. The rea­son that I amhope­ful 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 la­won 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 af­terWorldWar 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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