Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Airborne: Pollution, Climate Change, and New Visions of Sustainability in China


This project takes “air” (空气 kongqi) as its focal point of departure. It starts from the assumption that people’s experiences and imaginaries of the impact of air pollution are in the process of transforming into entirely new visions of sustainability and creative forms of action in China – the world’s largest energy consuming state. Airborne attempts to answer the questions of how, and to which extent, Communist authorities, scientists, rural/urban inhabitants, and environmental organizations interact in responding to the inseparable risks of air pollution in China and global climate change. We study this through three carefully designed interdisciplinary case studies that all require new forms of cooperation across the disciplines of sinology, anthropology, media science, political science, and environmental chemistry:

Case 1: The Interface between Air Pollution Science and People
Case 2: Central PM Pollution Policy Goes Local
Case 3: The Class and Gender of Individual Air Pollution Exposure

In sum, these cases will produce empirical knowledge of China’s path towards sustainability by highlighting the deep conflicts of interests that are vested in this endeavor. Theoretically this will generate new understandings of both the limits and possibilities of human creativity in the face of global environmental risks as experienced within a politically authoritarian state with undisputed importance for global climate change.

End Report

The results from the Airborne group during our year at CAS were more successful than expected. Initially, we wanted to take this opportunity to bring together researchers from widely different disciplines, different research traditions, and with different backgrounds to work together on a joint research topic. We aimed at joint research and joint publications, which is a challenge given the very different research traditions represented in the group both with regard to academic disciplines and with regard to research “traditions” (China versus Euro-American especially). The collaborative work was not without challenges, but the fact that we had ample time to be together in order to clarify and discuss our various research approaches brought the project considerably forward.

One of the very promising results is that we have now established a firm ground for further collaboration with individuals and institutions especially in China, but also in the US at major universities (Harvard, Oregon and Stanford). Members of the Airborne team has initiated two new larger project applications that are directly based on the research done at CAS, both applying for funding from RCN (Fripro/Toppforsk and Samkul). These research applications eventually aim for an ECR Advanced Grant. In addition, the Airborne team is applying for funding for MA teaching collaboration between UiO and Zhejiang University within the field of environment and pollution (RCN Intpart program). The project was also the first initiatiator of an application for 20 mill. NOK to UiO for a School of Environmental Humanities. Collaborative research within all of these new initiatives has already started and will be expanded when/if external funding is obtained.


As for the research results; scholars have little knowledge about how Chinese people have perceived of air in earlier times and when air pollution was acknowledged as a major health and societal problem. Our study of historical Chinese journals and media reports now show that ideas about polluted air goes back to late 19th century in China. During the early modernisation period in China, urban residents became concerned about the health effects of indoor, so-called “foul” or “non-fresh” air in their homes especially. Outdoor and industrial air pollution in China only became a topic for debate during from the 1930s. In the first half of the 20th century, our study found that London came to play an important role in the Chinese understanding of air pollution. It was only after 2011 that air pollution really became an intensely debated topic of public discussion in China, and with the past 5-6 years the attention towards London as a contested symbol of air pollution and a hope for cleaner air in China’s has again returned to the media discourse.

In scholarship, media and policy making related to air pollution in China, there has been an almost exclusive focus on urban and ambient air pollution. Airborne has studied in-depth the impact of air pollution, and the perceptions of air pollution, in a rural area of Zhejiang in China, in order to set focus also on the rural population where we know from previous research that household produced air pollution may be an important health factor. During the stay at CAS we analysed a large amount of data collected regarding the actual level of household and ambient air pollution in the cluster of villages, and material from interviews and observations. The results were quite clear: The rural population even in this comparatively rich rural area of China was exposed to at least as much, possibly more, polluting particles from the air as the inhabitants in the larger city of Quzhou (most likely also the 3 million city Hangzhou). The rural residents were exposed to pollutants both due to household use of solid fuel for cooking and due to newly established industrial parks in the vicinity of villages and older style highly polluting factories (bricks, plastics, etc.). Villagers were highly aware of the problems of air pollution and they were actively searching for scientific support for their repeated complaints to local authorities about the pollution problem. Our research results suggests that authorities need to systematically measure not merely urban air but also rural air, and that it is necessary to work systematically to reduce even further the use of solid fuels in rural and semi-rural areas of China.


  • Aunan, Kristin
    Professor University of Oslo 2016/2017
  • Gao, Fangfang
    Associate Professor Zhejiang University 2016/2017
  • He, Yi
    Associate Professor Zhejiang University 2016/2017
  • Li, Hongtao
    Associate Professor Zhejiang University 2016/2017
  • Liu, Zhaohui
    Associate Professor Zhejiang University 2016/2017
  • Schmitt, Edwin
    PhD Candidate The Chinese University of Hong Kong 2016/2017
  • Shi, Yao
    Professor Zhejiang University 2016/2017
  • Svarverud, Rune
    Professor University of Oslo 2016/2017
  • Tilt, Bryan
    Associate Professor Oregon State University 2016/2017
  • Wang, Shuxiao
    Professor Tsinghua University 2016/2017

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