Stakeholder Capitalism

How can China improve indoor air quality?

Bee Lin Ang
Associate Director, Content and Communications, JLL
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This article is published in collaboration with JLL.

As Beijing shuts its schools, halts construction and urges residents to stay behind closed doors, it’s not only the air outside buildings which is a cause for concern – indoor air quality is also proving to be far below par.

China issued its second ever “red alert” over choking smog and low air quality. During the warning period issued from Saturday and ending Tuesday, vehicle restrictions were put in place and 30 percent of government-owned cars were taken off the road. Public education institutions were advised to suspend classes. Some companies closed and staff were allowed to work from home.

Amid concerns over China’s outdoor air quality, a team of JLL researchers decided to look at indoor air quality at offices, where most people spend the majority of their time working. The team surveyed 160 office buildings in Beijing in the second half of 2015 and found that the air inside is as polluted as the air outside.

According to the white paper – Every breath we take: transforming the health of China’s office space, published by JLL and indoor environmental consultancy PureLiving China, 90 percent of office buildings were not achieving a substantial reduction in PM2.5 – the tiny particulate matter that is harmful to human health. In fact, about a quarter of the buildings showed worse air quality in indoor working areas than outdoors.

“The spot tests we carried out provided a quick snapshot of indoor air quality and showed that the vast majority of the office buildings tested were unlikely, with the exception of low-pollution days, to be able to maintain indoor PM2.5 levels within a safe range,” says Steven McCord, Head of Research for JLL North China.

“Most people assume that if they’re indoors, they are safer, but the research shows that is not necessarily the case, especially on bad-air days,” says Eric Hirsch, Head of Office Leasing in Beijing for JLL. “The recent ‘airpocalypses’ and ‘red alerts’ in Beijing have been the latest wake-up call for better air quality.”

Serious repercussions for poor air quality

A Berkeley Earth study has found that air pollution in China contributes to some 1.6 million deaths per year. According to air quality specialist RESET, as much as 75 percent of PM2.5 finds its way into office buildings.

Apart from health concerns, poor air quality inside offices has been found to lower employee productivity and hurt retention rates. “Good indoor air correlates to nearly twice the level of productivity compared to average air quality and is increasingly important for talent attraction and retention in China,” says McCord. “These are important factors impacting companies operating in China under a slower economy.”

According to a survey released in 2015 by Bain & Company and the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 53 percent of foreign companies trying to build their businesses in China face problems recruiting senior people from abroad because of pollution concerns.

“While outdoor air will take a some time to improve, fixing indoor air has immediate solutions available to employers, which reduce health problems and boost productivity,” says Louie Cheng, President of PureLiving China and a co-author of the study.

Taking action

A cost-benefit analysis illustrates how employers can potentially reap large cost-savings by locating their firms in a building with proper air filtration, an important driver of air quality in offices. The white paper has also provided a simple solution to improve indoor quality called the 3A strategy: Assess, Act and Assure.

“Increasingly, employers and building owners are realizing that air quality is essential to ensure the health of employees, and tenants are looking for ways to implement clean-air projects,” says Cheng. “Our research shows that how to do this should no longer be a mystery, and it just requires businesses to take the first step of deciding to take action.”

Investments in improving air quality can pay for themselves in as little as three to six months through increased productivity, reduced sick days, and lower health insurance costs, according to the white paper, citing more research from RESET.

“China, which is increasingly playing a bigger role in the world economy, is taking bold steps to address pollution levels, and because of this, the government is well-positioned to improve indoor air quality in a global context so that other industrializing nations can follow,” says Cheng.

In Asia Pacific, China is not the only developing nation struggling with air quality issues. Forest fires in Indonesia enveloped much of Southeast Asia in haze during October, while a WHO study reveals that India’s Delhi has the world’s worst air pollution.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Bee Lin Ang is the Associate Director of Content and Communications at JLL.

Image: A woman wearing a mask makes her way at a business district during a polluted day in Beijing, China, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

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Related topics:
Stakeholder CapitalismNature and BiodiversityGlobal CooperationGeographies in Depth
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