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A Critical Comparison of Ambient Air Pollution in China and Australia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2268 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2018) defines ambient air pollution as outdoor air pollution that reduces the quality of air individuals breathe. Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk, with ambient air pollution contributing to approximately 3 million deaths each year (World Health Organisation 2016 p.14). Ambient air pollution increases the risk of obtaining a number of serious health conditions including, lung cancer (Chen et al. 2007, p.235-243), acute lower respiratory infection, stroke, ischaemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (World Health Organisation 2019). Countries with rapidly developing economies often struggle with ambient air pollution due to a higher demand for energy production and consumption. Both China and Australia are classed as high-income countries according to the World Bank (2017) indicating they are at the highest risk of ambient air pollution.  

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Australia is one of the cleanest high-income countries in the world, widely recognised for maintaining a ‘very good’ air quality against world standards (Commonwealth of Australia 2015, p.4). Since 1998, Australia has further implemented their own set of National Ambient Air Quality standards, which are reviewed and modified every two years. These standards are help maintain the ‘very good’ air quality currently being achieved. The National Ambient Air Quality standards produce guideline levels of major contributing air pollutants; lead, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide in order to maintain a healthy environment for humans (Keywood, Emmerson & Hibberd 2016a).

Over the last 20 years, Australia has been able to vastly reduce their levels of lead and nitrogen dioxide in the air and are aiming to even further reduce other pollutants (Keywood, Emmerson & Hibberd 2016b). According to Keywood, Emmerson and Hibberd (2016b), the worst performing locations across Australia, or the locations with the poorest air quality still show air of a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ standard against the world standards and are usually in the major cities of Australia where there is highest demand for burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport needs.

Air pollution can be classified into three different categories; anthropogenic which are man-made, biogenic which are natural and living as well as, geogenic which are natural and non-living (Keywood, Emmerson & Hibberd 2016a). Anthropogenic emissions are currently the leading pollutant in ambient air quality in Australia, with motor vehicles, industry and domestic activities such as wood heaters being major contributors. Australian population growth, along with growing transport and energy demands are increasing the risk of Australia exceeding air quality standards put in place by the government. Australia has a projected population growth rate of 1.6 percent, and is predicted to reach a population of 39.7 million people by the year 2054-55. An increase in population will be harsh on air pollution as there will be an increase in use of all leading air pollutants in order to support the growing population (Keywood, Emmerson & Hibberd 2016c).

Anthropogenic emissions are of most concern in Australia as these are the emissions that can be controlled, opposed to natural emissions caused by events such as bushfires or dust storms which are uncontrolled (Keywood, Emmerson & Hibberd 2016a). Unfortunately, it is hard to maintain correct levels of particulate matter (small molecules which float in the air) due to natural emissions caused by extreme events such as bushfires, dust storms and smog which can cause levels to exceed standards in place.

China has one of the world’s strongest economical expansions in world history (Haidong, Renjie & Shilu 2012, p. 10). This expansion however is highly driven by the burning and excessive use of fossil fuels, causing China to face the worst air pollution problem in the world (Bingheng, Chuanjie & Haidong 2009). Coal remains the major energy source in China, accounting for approximately 75 percent of the country’s energy (Haidong, Renjie & Shilu 2012, p. 10). China has some of the most advanced development in the world which causes the country’s energy consumption to increase (Bingheng, Chuanjie & Haidong 2004, p. 291).

According to Bingheng, Chuanjie and Haidong (2004, p. 292-293) there are many contributing factors of ambient pollution, the combination of many different factors causes the pollution levels to be so high. Urbanization is a pressing issue in China with many people migrating to already highly populated areas with around 380 million Chinese living in cities alone. China not only suffers from urbanisation but from a combination of modernisation, industrialisation, migration and economic growth is considered to be experiencing ‘rapid urbanization’ (Bingheng, Chuanjie & Haidong 2004, p. 292). China has seen an extreme increased demand of energy and in turn increased energy consumption due to their quickly developing country with a steadily rising consumption rate. Motor vehicle needs are also increasing quite respectively with energy demands, this is due to a growing Chinese population and the rise in distance required to travel to work. There are also issues with major cities planning and construction; when the cities were originally built, it was thought that having the residential areas and industrial areas close together was most beneficial as workers were closer to their workplaces. However, this now is a source of pollution as industrial waste is in the immediate air surrounding urban areas (Bingheng, Chuanjie & Haidong 2004, p. 293).

A vast majority of products used all across the globe are manufactured in China and unfortunately with a growing world population, comes an increased demand for products and more manufacturing of products means more energy demand in China to run factories and businesses to keep up with the demands from across the globe.

China and Australia are both effectively reducing ambient pollution in their area however, it is not enough to eliminate the health effects being seen. Chinese residents are at significant health risks including chronic illness, due to ambient pollution of the air they breathe in on a daily basis (Haidong, Renjie & Shilu 2012, p. 10). Whilst Australians are still facing these same health risks, the potential of acquiring these illnesses is much smaller as Australia has been able to keep their air pollution to a minimum in the vast majority of cities and towns. In Australia, there are only few towns which do not meet National Ambient Air Quality standards and this is only an occasional occurrence. Whilst China also possesses National Air Quality Standards like Australia, from a study conducted on 621 cities in China, 17 percent of these towns did not meet national requirements, an alarming 107 cities with people consistently breathing in air with a ‘poor’ air quality rating.

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Whilst both countries are considered as high-income countries according to the World Bank (2017), China has a much more rapidly growing economy than Australia does. Unfortunately for China, this means the country has developed a very ‘investment driven, energy and resource heavy growth model’ (Zhu et al. 2015 pp. 27). This model means that due to such high demand and supply for products currently manufactured in China the biggest pollutants are from generation of electricity and industrial materials such as steel, metals and cement. Australia’s main pollutants include electricity generation like China but also mining, however Australia does not have such great supply and demand, meaning there is much less pressure to consistently generate electricity to such great measures to support industrial business.

Approximately a quarter of the world’s population lives in China alone. China has a population growth rate of approximately 10.5 percent on average annually (Bingheng, Chuanjie & Haidong 2004), however Australia only has a growth rate of 1.6 percent which is significantly smaller. Geographically, Australia is tremendously larger than China, however has a significantly smaller population. With the projected growth rates of both China and Australia, there is concern about where all of these individuals will find housing especially in a country that is already very crowded such as China. With rapid urbanisation already occurring in China, increased demand for all resources is inevitable.

In conclusion, it is important that we recognise how important and dangerous ambient air pollution is. There are so many significant health conditions that can arise from prolonged exposure to air pollution, with majority of these becoming lifelong illnesses to individuals would have to deal with. There is much evidence to show that our current habits both large- and small-scale including electricity generation and domestic woodfire heating have such great impact on the concentration of particulate matter in the air we breathe. Whilst both China and Australia have made a conscious effort to recognise and reduce their ambient air pollutant levels, Australia has been more successful at achieving consistently ‘safe’ ambient air quality. Both countries have national air quality standards put in place by the government, however China has struggled as a whole country to reach these standards due to their rapidly growing economy and an increase in demand across the globe, for products manufactured in China. Unfortunately, it is clear that China is facing much worse pollution compared to Australia placing their citizens at much higher risk of disease and illness.

Reference List

  • Bingheng, C, Chuanjie, H & Haidong, K 2004, ‘Exposures and health outcomes from outdoor pollutants in China’, Toxicology, vol. 198, no. 1-3, pp. 291-300
  • Bingheng, C, Chuanjie, H & Haidong, K 2009, ‘Health Impact of Outdoor Air Pollution in China: Current Knowledge and Future Research Needs’, Environmental Health Perspectives, National Institute of Environmental Health Science, viewed 1 May 2019, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685855/>
  • Chen, T, Kuschner, W, Gokhale, J & Shofer, S 2007, ‘Outdoor Air Pollution: Particulate Matter Health Effects’, The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, vol. 333, no. 4, pp. 235-243 
  • Commonwealth of Australia 2015, ‘National Clean Air Agreement, Commonwealth of Australia 2015’, Australian Government, viewed 4 May 2019, <https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/188756ab-ed94-4a3c-9552-62763ca86a7f/files/national-clean-air-agreement.pdf>
  • Haidong, K, Renjie, C & Shilu, T 2012, ‘Ambient air pollution, climate change, and population health in China’, Environment International, vol. 42, pp. 10-19
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  • Keywood, M, Emmerson, K & Hibberd, M 2016b, Ambient air quality: State and trends, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Commonwealth of Australia, viewed 4 May 2019, <https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/ambient-air-quality/framework/state-and-trends, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372>
  • Keywood, M, Emmerson, K & Hibberd, M 2016c, Ambient air quality: Increasing population, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, viewed 4 May 2019, <https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/ambient-air-quality/topic/2016/increasing-population>
  • The World Bank 2017, World Bank Country and Lending Groups, The World Bank, viewed 4 May 2019, <https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519>
  • World Health Organisation 2016, Ambient air pollution: a global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland
  • World Health Organisation 2018, Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health, World Health Organisation, viewed 24 April 2019, <https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health>
  • World Health Organisation 2019, Ambient air pollution: Health Impacts, World Health Organisation, viewed 24 April 2019, <https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/>
  • Zhu, J, Yan, Y, He, C & Wang, C 2015, China’s environment: Big issues, accelerating effort, ample opportunities, Goldman Sachs, China


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