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North by Northwest
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Pollution in China

The butterfly’s effect

Analysis | Arctic change is having non-Arctic consequences, which is driving non-Arctic states to get more involved in the Arctic
Not fit for man or 蝴蝶 (Photo: Suicup)

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A longstanding mantra in environmental policy circles decrees that whatever happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Concerns about climate change in the circumpolar north have hardly been restricted to that region, especially as evidence of the potential global effects of sea level rise and changed weather patterns, as a result of Arctic Ocean ice, loss continues to accumulate.

This week saw the disturbing news that for a third year in a row, winter ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean reached a record low level and the ice which was present was unusually thin. With less ice to reflect the sun’s rays, the spectre of ‘Arctic amplification’ (meaning a feedback loop caused by more open blue ocean absorbing the sun’s heat, prompting still more warming and ice loss) presented greater potential. This in turn may have serious consequences for climate on a global scale, and it is partially due to these concerns that several non-Arctic states, including China, have begun to draw up Arctic policies and strategies.

Another facet of the interconnectedness between Arctic climate change and non-Arctic consequences was also made clear when a study in the journal Science Advances was published this month which linked Arctic climate change to pollution events in eastern China.

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The essay presented evidence of a chain reaction caused by far northern ice erosion which contributed to a surfeit of snow falling in northern Eurasia and Siberia, altering weather patterns along the East China Plains, also known as the Northern China Plains (華北平原), a large area which encompasses several major cities, including Beijing, Tianjin and Jinan.

This in turn contributed significantly to abnormally high incidences of air pollution over much of China’s eastern half during the winter months of 2012-13 due to stagnant, warmer-than-usual air and a lack of effective ventilation. By advancing the concept of a ‘potential pollution index’, the work argued that by January 2013 lack of Arctic ice and heavy precipitation were responsible for lower winds and poorer air circulation in the East China Plains, causing a higher percentage of contaminants to remain more stationary over populated centres

This event, which many commentators termed an ‘airpocalypse’ (空气末日) included exceedingly high PM2.5 levels, (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less), seen as a major health hazard, as well as air quality index levels in the country’s capital soaring to readings of over 700. A reading of over 150 is considered ‘unhealthy’, and a figure of over 300 is classified as ‘hazardous’.

Public outcry over the unprecedented levels of air pollution and growing concerns about the negative impact on health and economic growth prompted Li Keqiang, the premier, to declare a ‘war’ on pollution the following year, and to enact legislation which included curbing smog emissions and promoting renewable energy sources.

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However, the problem of air pollutants and winter smog, from sources which include coal-burning, automobile exhaust, construction and agricultural and manufacturing waste, continue to be a challenge for the Chinese government. Beijing, along with Zhangjiakou and other nearby cities in Hebei Province, will be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, and will be under considerable pressure to ensure air-quality standards for the events.

A recent article published in the journal Nature: Climate Change also addressed the link between climate change and the severity of winter air pollution, including high particulate matter levels, in China. This research noted weather changes in and around the country, including shifts in the Arctic Oscillation, (an index which measures winds and atmospheric pressure at the latitudes north of 55°, which often affect temperatures and weather conditions much further to the south), and dryer conditions in the coldest months of the year. This article concluded with the prediction that absent efforts to combat the causes of climate change, incidents of acute wintertime haze in eastern China would become more commonplace.

There have been previous studies in which Arctic climate change was linked to weather events in China, including harsher winters and marked variations in rainfall. In January 2016, an unusually strong ‘polar vortex’ was blamed for extreme cold conditions in southern China, including Hong Kong.

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In recent years, policymakers in China have been seeking to widen and deepen the country’s engagement in the Arctic, including via scientific co-operation with regional governments and other actors, to better understand how the Arctic’s environmental variations have affected Chinese weather conditions.

Beijing has also argued that China is distinct in its degree of susceptibility to changes in Arctic climate and glaciation. These recent studies add more weight to these ideas, and further underscore global concerns about the degree to which ice reduction in the Arctic may create further unforseen and unwelcome aftereffects elsewhere.

The author is a senior lecturer (China, East Asia, Polar Affairs) at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, in Auckland, New Zealand.