Analytics Tools Help China Deal With Air Pollution

As China has grown into a global economic powerhouse, air pollution has become a major health problem. Smog in major urban areas such as Beijing has worsened in recent years, and it now reaches hazardous levels on a regular basis.

As a result, Prime Minister Li Keqiang declared war on pollution last March, and the country has announced that it will work with regional and local officials that do not address the issue adequately.

Yet, China is turning to more than political discourse and new policies to address its air pollution problem. In July, the Chinese government inked a 10-year deal with IBM to embark on an initiative dubbed “Green Horizon.” Its goal is to boost renewable energy and improve energy optimization, while putting systems and data to work in order to better understand the underlying sources of pollution and the steps required to address the challenge.

The need to clear the air is apparent to a wide range of observers, including researchers. “China’s rapid economic development has introduced heavy environmental costs,” states Tao Wang, resident scholar in the Energy and Climate Program at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. “As the general public demands a better environment and improved quality of life, it is important for the government to respond and adopt a more sustainable approach to economic development.”

IBM’s China Research Laboratory will spearhead the effort and tap into a network of 12 global research labs to create an ecosystem of partners from across government, academia, industry and private enterprise. Green Horizon will rely on advanced technologies and computing methods—including weather satellites, next-generation optical sensors, structured databases, big data analytics and the Internet of things—to gain deeper insights into weather prediction and climate modeling. Cognitive computing systems will analyze and learn from streams of real-time data.

By applying supercomputing processing power, scientists from IBM and the Beijing government hope to generate visual maps at street-scale resolution showing the source and dispersion of pollutants across Beijing 72 hours in advance. “This project will provide Beijing with a much better understanding of how pollution is produced and spread across the city, so the government can address it more effectively,” Wang explains. In addition to monitoring real-time data, scientists and researchers will use historical data to better “calibrate” the model, he adds.

What’s more, the IBM technology will overlay with the country’s Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which aims to safeguard the health of approximately 700 million people living in urban areas. The city of Beijing will invest more than $160 billion to improve air quality and deliver on its target of reducing harmful fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) by 25 percent by 2017.

With accurate, real-time data about Beijing’s air quality, the government will be in a position to address environmental issues rapidly by altering production at specific factories or alerting citizens about developing air quality issues. In addition, the Chinese government has established a goal of obtaining 13 percent of its consumable energy from non-fossil fuels by 2017, while enabling the construction of the world’s largest renewable grid.

“Science-based decision support systems combined with sophisticated data analysis are exactly what the Chinese government needs to address the country’s energy and environmental issues,” Wang concludes.