Date: 10/29/2019 – Author: Thomas Bott
Reading time: 4 minutes

Air pollution costs lives and money

China has a big problem with its air quality.  Above some cities there are smog clouds so dense that they limit the function of solar panels. In 2018, scientists at Hong Kong University warned pollution as posing serious consequences for the population and the economy, citing it as being responsible for around 1.1 million premature deaths each year. Additionally stating that pollution causes the country to lose around 20 million tons of agricultural products such as soy and rice every year, accounting for a loss of around 267 billion yuan ($38 billion).

(© 2019 Getty Images)

This is primarily caused by particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3). In Shanghai in 2017, the former exceeded the WHO guideline values by a factor of four. It was even worse in Beijing where the values were six times higher. The World Air Quality Project map shows that these are not isolated cases in the country. In many larger cities, the level of pollution is alarming.

Particulate matter mainly comes from local industry, traffic, housing, and commercial construction, while the energy sector is a major source of ozone. China, after all, still relies predominantly on coal.

Government wants to reduce pollutant emissions

Air pollution in China was even worse in 2013, when it was declared by the global media as the “airpocalypse.” During this time there were pictures from Beijing wherein buildings and landmarks had disappeared in dense smog. For many people in the West it was hard to understand how anyone was able to live in such conditions.

(© 2019 Getty Images)

This was a pivotal moment for the Chinese government and it determined things must change. It created measuring stations and set new standards and targets, and extensive laws protecting the environment were enacted. These changes were meant to hold those responsible for the pollution to higher standards and enforce change. Because the situation improved too slowly, China followed up last year and drew up a three-year plan that should finally ensure blue skies over the country by 2020. The country’s next goal is to significantly reduce CO2 emissions by 2030.

Modern technology as a central antidote

As the country’s population continues to grow, so does the demand for energy and transport. First needed is a technological solution to these problems. China is already promoting microbility to try and curb particulate matter, and have advantages in buying battery electric vehicles. But the future will increasingly focus on fuel cell vehicles.

Because many people in large cities use mopeds to get around, the need for low-emission solutions is also growing. One solution is electric scooters with replaceable batteries that are designed to ensure that people remain mobile at all times. The batteries are simply pulled out of a station freshly charged. A similar system even exists for electric cars.

(© 2019 Getty Images)

The electricity for this, however, still largely comes from coal. However, the country is investing heavily in renewable energies to make sure that this, too, changes. It all started with solar panels, which provide more power and improve air quality. Wind energy also has great potential. China is already the market leader in this area and is investing many billions of dollars in further expansion.

Artificial intelligence could reduce the power consumption requirements of electric vehicles. With fully autonomous vehicles, routes can be optimized and operating times controlled. Self-propelled taxis, for example, are less frequent at certain times, for example when many people are at home and electricity consumption in their homes is rising. In this way, China could avoid peaks.

Autonomous taxis, for example, are less needed at certain times, for example when many people are at home, and electricity consumption in homes is rising. In this way, China could avoid peaks.

Homes themselves may also play a major role in generating energy. In addition to solar panels on the roof, windows could soon generate electricity. Researchers have developed transparent modules that also improve thermal insulation. In cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, these modules could generate large quantities of energy.

Clean electricity from space

The idea of generating electricity goes beyond the realms of this earth. Chinese aeronautics aren’t primarily concerned with the exploration of new planets, but with the use of existing celestial bodies, mainly the moon. In early 2019, Chang’e 4 landed on the dark side of the moon. It brought a plant on board to grow there for testing purposes, and for testing a possible photosynthesis on the moon.

In a way, this was probably connected to another one of the country’s plans. China wants to build a solar plant on the moon by 2030. Between 2021 and 2025, smaller power plants are to be built on the moon before the country enters the megawatt field. For researchers, it is clear that solar energy can be generated much more efficiently there. There is no  atmosphere disturbances which filters sunlight, and there is no permanent energy production.

The biggest problem for China, however, is still to be solved: transmission. So far it seems to be only possible via a kind of cable. But for this to be possible, a scaffold is needed. So the preferred solution would be a space elevator. But what it should look like is still written in the stars.