China's egregious pollution woes could soon provide lucrative opportunities for green engineering firms from abroad.

Air pollution in China’s major cities hit record high levels in the final month of 2013, posing a heightened threat to the health of local residents, as well as raising the hackles of government leaders with its increasing potential to foment popular unrest.

According to figures from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre, levels of PM2.5 particles, which have the most damaging effects upon human respiratory health, hits 421 micrograms per cubic metre on the afternoon before Christmas Day. This compares to a 24-hour exposure level as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) of no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

PM2.5 levels were even worse in some of China’s major inland cities, hitting 795 in the Shaanxi province capital of Xi’an, and 740 in the Hebei province capital of Zhengzhou.

Beijing has flagged its determination to deal with the issue of burgeoning urban air pollution, committing over 3 trillion yuan  (approx. US$490 billion) to measures for combating the problem.

The earmarking of such a huge volume of government funds, in tandem with private initiatives to deal with hazardous air pollution, will lead to a market laden with lucrative opportunities for green engineering firms.

turbines in China

Turbines in China

According to figures from the US Department of Commerce, China’s clean technology market will triple in size by the end of this decade, hitting a staggering $555 billion.

Western companies have already seized the initiative, with US clean energy firm LP Amina, UK design engineer WS Atkins and Australia’s Lend Lease either ramping up staff levels or hunting aggressively for contracts in the Middle Kingdom.

LP Amina, which produces retrofitting burners for coal power plants to increase their efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint, says sales figures in China doubled in 2013. Despite efforts by China to shift towards cleaner forms of energy, the country remains heavily dependent upon coal to generate the vast majority of its power, and the retrofitting of its existing fleet of plants remains one of the most expedient means of reducing pollution levels.

In the realm of green building, Atkins is helping local governments in China to develop sustainable construction guidelines, and will collaborate with two municipalities in the near future to implement them. China has already become a key driver of growth for Atkins, comprising 40 per cent of Asia-Pacific revenues in 2013.