The Chinese documentary Under the Dome (霧霾調查：穹頂之下) by former China Central Television presenter Chai Jing (柴靜) about pollution in China has not only sent shockwaves in that country, it has also become a hot topic in Taiwan.
Although many of the voices embroiled in this debate cast themselves in the role of the victim, expressing all kinds of indignation about the situation, it is difficult to deny — when examining the causes of air pollution — it is often society itself, to a greater or lesser extent, that is either directly or indirectly to blame.
Things will only get better when we ourselves sit up, listen and reflect upon our own role in the matter, and start to press our elected representatives and the government to adopt forward-looking, holistic policies, while at the same time setting the right example ourselves and actively participating in the solution.
Air pollution leads to premature deaths and more trips to the doctor, and causes unnecessary work and research, all of which contribute to considerable economic costs for individuals and the wider society alike.
An example is the transportation system and equipment that relies on diesel fuel. The WHO has recently listed particulate matter within diesel engine emissions as carcinogenic to humans. Despite the strict emissions standards that have been universally applied on road vehicle engines throughout the world for almost two decades now, there has nevertheless been a major increase in the percentage of diesel exhaust emissions from non-road vehicle engines in diesel locomotives, construction diggers and cranes, generators and ships, and in particular with hydrocarbon emissions, which are even worse now than the emissions from road vehicles.
To reduce pollution from diesel engines, better emissions technologies must be developed. Over the past 15 years, the US, the EU, Canada, Japan, India, China, South Korea and Brazil have all set out laws regulating the use of non-road vehicle engines, which has not only improved air quality, it has also significantly improved efficiency.
As the US has implemented relatively strict new laws controlling pollution, there is expected to be a decrease in toxic pollutants in exhausts from road vehicle and non-road vehicle engines of about 330,000 tonnes by the year 2030 in the US, out of pollutants including more than 1 million tonnes of exhaust with volatile organic compounds, consisting of ground-level ozone and particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter (PM2.5). US controls on air pollution emitted from shipping has already had clear benefits for public health and the environment. In North America alone, the savings have been the equivalent of more than 10 times the cost of implementing the controls.
If Taiwan wants cleaner air, the relevant authorities must work together. Last year, the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) purchased 24 diesel locomotives to replace older ones. In the absence of a set of appropriate standards on locomotive engine emissions, it is entirely foreseeable that the TRA and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications will encounter criticism down the line because of the pollution that these locomotives emit, and that the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) will be left red-faced for failing to enforce new standards that it draws up.
It is time that Taiwan realized the impact on air quality of diesel engine emissions, including those from non-road vehicles. The nation must look at emissions standards, how equipment is used, understand the future clean engines market, control emissions and look at the benefits of reducing them.
To clean Taiwan’s air, a regional approach is needed. Controlling pollution from ships can be used as an example. The nation can learn from the Emission Control Areas set up by the International Maritime Organization.
In China, to encourage the use of engines that burn natural gas, Beijing has recently announced measures such as subsidies worth on average 970,000 yuan (US$155,000) for building new ships. Following Hong Kong’s example, Shenzhen has also announced a series of measures aimed at cleaning up its shipping, truck and port facilities, including encouraging ships to use clean fuel and to connect to the shoreside electricity supply while at berth.
Ports such as Shanghai and Qingdao have also proposed plans to promote port facilities and to electrify trucks.
According to Chai, this issue is a personal grudge between her and the smog that she blames for the benign tumor that her unborn daughter was diagnosed with. It was this news that made her quit her job so that she could be with her daughter, and it was then that she began researching smog.
She would prefer that adults do not wait until a similar experience hits us before we start to turn our attention to this important issue.
Hua Jian is an associate professor of marine engineering at National Taiwan Ocean University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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