Air-quality apps create momentum for China’s sweeping clean-air reforms
Access to real-time data helps us, as individuals and families, to behave in climate-friendly ways. It also drives policy changes at astonishing scales. If you’ve been to China in recent years, you’ll have seen how omnipresent cellphones have become. According to China Internet Watch, the country has more than 854 million internet users—more than the entire population of Europe. Many of these people begin their day by checking an air-quality app. With data available from tens of thousands of sites across four hundred cities on the mainland, these apps have become as much a part of daily life in China as its social media platforms. Air-quality apps enable people to make better-informed decisions about whether they need to stay indoors or put on a face mask, or if the air is clean enough for them to bike to school or work. These apps provide a vital source of information in a country notorious for deadly air pollution. They also supply powerful motivation to demand positive change.
Air pollution hit highs never before seen in China in 2013. In the capital city of Beijing, average particulate matter pollution (PM) was nine times the amount considered safe by the World Health Organization. In January of 2014, pollution reached thirty to forty-five times the recommended daily levels, and residents were told to stay indoors. Seventy per- cent of the entire Chinese population experienced PM levels that, if sustained, would correspond to a 6.5-year drop in life expectancy for the average person. The same year, a report by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said that pollution in Beijing was so bad, the city was nearly uninhabitable for human beings.
An influential study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that air pollution had shortened the lifespans of people living in northern China by five years compared to those living in the south. The study went viral on social media and was carried in major news outlets in China and internationally. Such dire health impacts, in combination with daily app reminders of how bad the situation was, fueled an outcry and drove mass public demand for change. In this case, personalized awareness of how critical the situation was led a national response.
In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution” at the National People’s Congress. The declaration came just a few months after the government instituted the toughest-ever clean-air policy in the country, allocating $270 billion to specific plans to reduce annual average PM. Beijing, which had already set aside $120 billion to fight pollution, would need to reduce PM levels by 34 percent to meet its targets. More than half of China’s air pollution comes from coal-fired power stations. The national action plan on air pollution created an outright ban on new coal-burning plants, and accelerated the use of scrubbers and filters. It prohibited large construction projects in order to prevent smog from cement production and diesel trucks. It created a new environmental protection agency with tough, far-reaching powers of enforcement.
China has achieved remarkably cleaner air—in just four years. Between 2013 and 2017, PM levels in Beijing dropped by 35 percent, while levels in surrounding regions dropped by 25 percent. According to a 2019 UN report, “No other city or region on the planet has achieved such a feat.”
As a result of this profound turn of events, the average Chinese citizen could increase their lifespan by 2.3 years relative to what it would have been in 2013, as long as these reductions in air pollution are sustained. There is crucial work still to be done, especially beyond major cities, but China is committed to staying the course. The shift from air- pocalypse to poster child for combating air pollution has been fast and decisive. In November 2019, Beijing was removed from the list of the world’s top two hundred most-polluted cities.
Seeing positive change occur so quickly, and at the scale of a country the size of China, is deeply hopeful. It demonstrates that when scientific data, political will, public engagement through personal devices, and clean technologies work synergistically, remarkable achievements happen.
China’s success with curbing air pollution is just one of many positive shifts happening at vast scales. Indeed, it’s likely you’re involved in another positive revolution, and it’s as close to you as the food you eat today.
Bet you’re eating more plants these days
You probably eat more plant-based foods than you did even a few years ago. For one thing, plant-based foods are way more accessible, and they come in so many more tasty choices. Whether you are hankering for fast food, craft beer, a fancy dinner, or something to pack in a school lunch, more vegetarian and vegan options are on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves. The surging demand for plant-based foods is being driven by those under-thirties I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Their food choices reflect their top-of-mind concern for animal welfare, the environment, and personal health.
Transforming how we eat is crucial to combating climate change and biodiversity loss. Research published in the journal Science in 2018 says that food production accounts for more than a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. If we include emissions caused by processing, transport, storage, cooling, and disposal of food, then the number rises to more than 40 percent, according to the World Economic Forum. How and where we produce food has the biggest impact of any human activity on the planet.
Some food industry analysts credit Gen Z’s presence on Instagram with the rise in popularity of veganism. Widely shared images of beautiful “real food”—green goddess smoothies, cauliflower buffalo wings, Thai curry pumpkin soup, vegan apple crumble tart with salted caramel, and thousands of other tasty delights—convey plant-based eating as something colorful, delicious, healthy, good for the planet, and on trend.
Gen Z are also using their personal devices to source foods that fit these values. In a 2019 analysis of tens of millions of online orders placed by more than 21 million diners using Grubhub, seven of the top ten orders were vegan and vegetarian dishes.
In North America, 2019 was a breakthrough year for plant-based eating. Canada’s official food guide downplayed animal fat and protein, promoting whole plant foods as the foundation of healthy eating. American media outlets, includ- ing Food Business News and Forbes, named “plant-based foods” the trend of the year. Sales of plant-based foods grew by more than 11 percent in the US in 2019, and analysts say this is just the beginning of a massive growth period as plant-based foods become even tastier and more consumers change their eating to match their desire for more sustainable options.
Plant-based eating is rapidly becoming a global trend too. Analysts report declines in meat consumption in the UK and across many countries in the European Union, as well as significant rises in people choosing vegetarian and vegan options. Meanwhile, plant-based diets are a leading health and wellness trend across Indonesia, India, and other Asian countries. According to the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research, nearly 40 percent of consumers in China want to purchase foods that are healthy for themselves and for the environment, and are reducing their meat intake in favor of tofu, vegetables, and vegan meats.
The meteoric rise of plant-based eating is a super hopeful trend for the planet. It’s a big step forward in achieving the recommendations of the world’s first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet and sustainable food production. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health brought together thirty-seven world-leading scientists to answer the question: “Can we feed a future population of ten billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?” The answer is yes. According to the report, by changing the way we produce, transport, and consume food, and reducing food waste, we could feed everyone a healthy diet while improving the health of the planet. By switching to plant- based diets, we’ll lower the risk of cancer, stroke, and diabetes, and in so doing, avoid eleven million adult deaths per year. The contribution of plants is so vital to our health, to feeding global society, and to the planet, the United Nations dedicated 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health.
While plant-based food is on the rise, the global demand for meat is also increasing, particularly in developing countries where people are better able to afford meat as they grow richer. That’s a big concern because, as the World Resources Institute puts it: if cattle were a nation, they’d be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US.
Yet rising meat consumption may not be a foregone conclusion. Plant-based or “meatless” meat, like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, is a fast-rising trend. KFC reported sales of more than one million vegan burgers in the first month they were on sale. Burgers, chicken nuggets, and other foods made from plants that are meant to taste like meat are in line with the priority young people all over the globe are placing on the environment. The “meatless” meat industry is projected to grow to $140 billion in a decade.
Thanks to delicious plant-based options increasingly filling the food categories once reserved for meat, and the popularity of flexible approaches like Meatless Mondays or Vegan Before 6:00 or Veganuary, more and more people now identify as “flexitarians”—folks who mostly eat a plant-based diet but enjoy meat on occasion, and “pescatarians”— semi-vegetarians who abstain from eating all animal flesh except for fish. In 2019, more than a third of American house- holds had at least one family member who followed a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or flexitarian diet. The percentage was even higher for Gen Z and millennial households.
Personal devices are helping to take a bite out of food waste
One of the great opportunities for tackling climate change and improving the health of people all over the planet is stopping food waste. Globally, nearly one third of food is lost or wasted. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 45 percent of all fruit and vegetables, 35 percent of seafood, 30 percent of cereals, and 20 percent of both meat and dairy products—1.3 billion tons of food per year—is wasted in a world where more than 10 percent of people struggle with hunger. It also carries a huge environmental and economic cost, because producing all that unused food demands resources and contributes to soil erosion, deforestation, water and air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, food that’s thrown in the garbage ends up in the landfill, which creates emissions too. But in the age of personalization, tech innovations like smart kitchens, sensor devices that detect food spoilage, and tracking systems are having a big impact.
Fridge Pal, Foodfully, and similar apps help you make shopping lists, track expiry dates, and suggest recipes based on the food you have at hand. Companies like Leanpath do the same thing for commercial kitchens, using food-waste smart meters to track and identify areas of overproduction.
The hospital at the University of California, San Francisco, cut their food waste in half, and now directs unused food to charities in the city, thanks to a combination of this high-tech tracking system and personalized menus that allow patients to choose their own meals.
Often food is wasted before it even makes it to its final destination—but again, personalized technology is stepping in to solve the problem by making it easier to redistribute unwanted food to those who need it. Food Cowboy matches transport trucks with food they need to unload—say, pallets of overripe tomatoes—with charities happy for a donation. The food gets eaten, and the shipper gets a donation credit.
With Transfernation, an on-demand food redistribution service operating in New York, food left over from receptions, weddings, and business meetings is picked up by volunteers, or by transportation networks like Lyft or Uber, and delivered to food banks and shelters. Donors get a tax receipt, deliverers get fifteen dollars a trip, and people in need get delicious food.
Healthy produce often gets thrown away for cosmetic reasons before it even reaches the grocery store. Instagram images of ugly yet adorable-looking fruits and vegetables sparked the @UglyFruitAndVeg campaign to encourage people to see less-than-perfect produce in a more accepting light. Imperfect Foods works directly with farmers and retailers to source ugly produce that would have been thrown away, and deliver these healthy items to your doorstep for up to 30 percent less than buying food in the grocery store.
In cities all over the world, you can download apps like Feedback, goMkt, Food for All, and Too Good To Go that alert you to restaurants nearby offering deep discounts on meals for pickup near closing time. NoFoodWasted in the Netherlands does the same thing, but for grocery shopping, alerting you to supermarkets offering discount prices on products reaching their best-before dates. And if you’re mov- ing to a new house or going on vacation, or you’ve simply got food in your fridge you know you can’t use in time, you can donate it to your neighbors—or ask for that egg you need for a cake—using Olio. This app promotes free food sharing, and its more than 1.5 million users have already shared nearly three million portions of food since it launched in 2015. By making things accessible in real time through our personal devices, these innovations are actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building more equitable systems, and deepen- ing our sense of belonging to communities that care about making positive changes for the planet.