Geopolitics

Welcome To Xingtai, The Most Polluted City In China

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang rolled out the country's new 'war on pollution,' Le Monde paid a visit to the city that has registered the dirtiest air in China.

Forecast: fog mixed with smog
Forecast: fog mixed with smog
Harold Thibault

XINGTAI – The decision, made in January 2013, for 74 Chinese cities to publish their pollution levels in real time only confirmed what many here already feared: Xingtai’s air quality is the worst in China.

And yet, no protesters have taken to the long Iron and Steel street, which goes from the north of the city to the south, and is home to a steel factory and a coal-fired power station. Instead, reactions of residents waver between muffled anger, doubts about the efficiency of the measures taken, and resignation.

“In private, people complain in the evening that they can never see the stars,” says Su Yuhong, a cashier at a grocery located just opposite the steel mill’s blast furnaces.

This 39-year-old woman can’t remember having seen a blue sky even once over the past year. On her smartphone, an app tells her each morning the extent of the damage. The reading is very often above 300 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic metre of air, a threshold that means the level of pollution is “critical,” even though Chinese standards are more indulgent than in the West.

Su has no doubt that air pollution has an impact on the health of young and old residents alike.

It took the intervention of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai and publication of their own readings to force China’s government to agree to more transparency on the issue. Now you only need to calculate the average over a whole year, as Greenpeace did in January, to discover that China’s six most polluted cities are all located in the Hebei province (surrounding Beijing).

In Xingtai, the average level was 155 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic meter, with a one-day peak at 688.

City authorities did not respond to Le Monde’s request for an interview, but Li Gang, head of a local environmental office, recently told the China Securities Journal how Xingtai’s now notorious and unenviable ranking puts the city’s civil servants under pressure, fearing the wrath of Beijing for the poor air conditions.

The small environmental office has to send the pollution readings to local officials three times a day. “If they see that the number of fine pollutants is on the rise, they call us and tell us to do something about it. We must be available and ready to act 24 hours a day,” he explained.

Still, the directors of the region’s heavy industry sites have their own grievances. During meetings with officials, they complain of the recent application of usage costs for sulfate and nitrate filters, which they say reduces their benefits and, consequently, threatens employment. So to save money, industrials turn the filtration systems off at night, when Li Gang and his colleagues are not there to see.

The local authorities have taken several impromptu measures to combat pollution. For example, when the level of particles is too high, employees of the road maintenance department spray water on the tarmac to prevent coal dust from flying. This happened between Feb. 13 and 15, following two other critical episodes in December and January.

Outside activities in school are banned on such days. The city also requires tarpaulin covers for trucks carrying fuel, and is trying to set up an alternate traffic circulation system.

But the inhabitants of Xingtai have long stopped believing in miracles, as the presence of coal in the region encouraged the most polluting industries to settle there from the early years of the People’s Republic of China.

Shi Longhui is a monk, whose small temple in the city is made of red bricks that contrast with the omnipresent grey. He notes that there have been efforts to remove the mountain of scree and ashes from the mines and the factories that were making life impossible for the inhabitants of the southern suburb. For almost six months, dozens of dump trucks gradually moved the pile of toxic waste. It was then used to raise the level of the land for the construction of a new highway. A factory that released acid vapors was forced to close.

Still, Shi Longhui believes the authorities cannot do more than that without risking hurting both the local economy and jobs. “Closing down more factories would have a negative impact on the economy. It’s also important for people to keep their jobs,” he warns.

Just two steps away, 56-year-old storekeeper Li Heping thinks that the air has become much too unhealthy to continue with this kind of business-only reasoning — noting that you only need to walk down the street for your shirt to get dirty.

“You need to consider the economy, of course, but the environment should have become the priority a long time ago,” he says.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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