Researchers aim to map China’s new smog

The air quality in China’s urban regions is a major health problem. Here, a new type of smog has emerged that has never been seen before. Now, researchers from Gothenburg and their Chinese colleagues will be studying air pollution in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Young and old Chinese people make their way through the city crowds wearing masks to protect them against exhaust fumes and emissions. The images are familiar from our TV screens.
“It’s an accurate picture,” says Professor Mattias Hallquist from the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. “According to our researchers, people in the cities keep their children indoors to keep them away from the polluted air.”

It has long been known that air pollution is a health hazard, leading to respiratory and vascular diseases and shortening life expectancy. Many of the better quality hotels in China’s cities have air filtration technology, and the authorities have now started to realise that something needs to be done. The air quality is even affecting business start-ups in China. The poor quality acts as a deterrent, making it harder to find qualified workers who are prepared to live in the big cities.

“But the conditions in Beijing differ to those in Hong Kong,” continues Professor Hallquist. “The cities are governed differently, and the climate is not the same. Beijing has various natural particles in the air that blow in from the desert areas. The climate is colder, and – just like in Gothenburg – they’ve also experienced problems with inversion, whereby the air pollutants stay at ground level. Hong Kong gets clean air from the sea, but at the smog also blows in from inland areas. Here, emissions from shipping are another significant source of pollution. The climate is subtropical, with heat and high levels of light emissions.”

Professor Hallquist has received a framework grant of just over SEK 24 million from the Swedish Research Council for a five-year project to study ways of combating smog in China’s urban regions. The project is an initiative from the Gothenburg Atmospheric Science Centre, which Professor Hallquist leads.

“We’re experts in photochemical conversion, the formation of particles and ozone in the atmosphere, and within the project we’re working with world-leading Chinese researchers.”
Around fifty researchers and doctoral students are taking part in the studies in China. Three types of pollutants will be studied: organic particles, soot and ozone. These pollutants interact in a complex manner, and they have an impact on the greenhouse effect and cloud formation, which in turn affect the climate.

The new project involves initiating brand new research into smog. Two types of smog were already known about. Los Angeles suffered from smog in the 1970s due to a combination of increased car traffic and strong sunlight that caused the haze containing organic substances, nitric oxides and ozone. The London smog was a consequence of coal being burnt in the city in the 1950s and 1960s, and the hazy smoke consisted of sulphur dioxide and soot.

“In China, however, we have everything mixed together, making it more complex to understand the effects. Here we have a new kind of smog that we haven’t seen before, and this is certainly part of the reason why the Swedish Research Council wants to support this research.”

The main aim of the project is to investigate this new type of harmful smog that affects the health of the Chinese people as well as the global climate. The ambition is also to identify measures that the Chinese authorities can take. The project in China is being run by the University of Gothenburg together with Chalmers University of Technology and IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute.

Gothenburg Atmospheric Science Centre

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