The quality of air in Shanghai rivals that of major western cities like New York and London

Whenever someone is considering a trip to China, pollution is often one of the first concerns. Rumors circulate of low hanging, toxic clouds so thick that hands cannot be seen at the ends of extended arms. Even if there are opportunities to learn or conduct business in China, some argue that the health risks outweigh the potential benefits. We’re happy to show that the participants in our programmes will enjoy quite low average air pollution in Shanghai.

As a whole, China certainly faces challenges related to pollution and air quality, and these challenges are scaled when compared to other developing countries due to the pace of economics growth, the sheer number of people, and the abundance of cheap and high polluting coal as a fuel source. However, China is a big place, and weather and emissions patterns vary from city to city. Some cities are indeed often covered in thick and unhealthy smog, whereas others are inspiringly clear and picturesque. Perhaps surprisingly, Shanghai’s average pollution is more similar to the second category than the first.

We looked at the research and reports from reputable sources and compared the results. The convention is to use a system called Air Quality Index (AQI), which considers the complete cocktail that is the air we breathe and weighs the various components to arrive at a single number. At any time of the day in any location, equipment can be used to give real-time AQI scores. The US embassy in China and various other international and local organizations measure the AQI in multiple cities around China. The AQI scores in Great Britain and the US are also measured, as are those in cities all around the world. As you can see in the diagram, a low AQI score means clean air, and a high AQI score is unhealthy. Governments and scientists around the world split the possible range of numbers into six categories.

The second (Yellow) level of AQI, called either ‘Good’ or ‘Moderate’, is defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency as: “Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.” The US Consulate in Shanghai defines the same range as: “Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion.” Shanghai, as well as New York and London, typically fall into this category.

Indeed, a recent NYT report shows that Shanghai is not actually a bad city for pollution compared to numerous other cities in China and even elsewhere in the world. Shanghai city average AQI rivals New York City at a score of between 50 and 60 on most days and is less polluted than London, with an average score of 60 to 70. Below are scores for each of these three cities, as referenced from AQIcn.org at the time this article was written.

Shanghai City Average:

New York City Average:

London City Average:

For those interested in learning more about pollution in Shanghai, the US Department of State keeps historical records of Shanghai’s and other city’s pollution metrics here. To better understand the AQI system and how it is derived from the density of various airborne particulates, see the “Computing the AQI” section here.