Academician He Kebin: China's environmental problem is a lifelong responsibility

I threw a tough question at Professor He Kebin: “When do you think Beijing’s smog will see signs of improvement. When will it disappear completely?” He gave a very straightforward answer, “This is something that everyone is concerned about. I can say that it will only get better. From our research, we will see great results and significant improvements after a decade. The pollution level will meet and exceed the current air quality in the Pearl River Delta.” He and his team have been conducting research in air pollution control and have already established emission inventory techniques.

“China’s reform and opening up for the last 30 years as well as impressive development also reflects changes in environmental governance. Pollution is not simply due to one reason. For example, it is mainly soot during the 1980s then it became acid deposition in the 1990s, which was brought about by industrialization and accelerated development. Whether it is urbanization, vehicles or nitrogen oxide emissions, China’s emission and its source is complicating. New challenges are constantly emerging,” concluded Professor He.

Due to the complexity of China’s air pollution problem, Professor He and his research team underwent years of study and recognized that this is a comprehensive regional issue. The source of the emission can be from the ground, based on the weather conditions and from the concentration of air pollutants. These three sets of data have certain impact on one another. For example: “With the same emission level, different weather conditions can result in varying air quality.”

In recent years, Professor He Kebin led his team to establish an emission inventory technology for regional air pollution. It is a core and a supporting technology for changing the air quality around the world. It allows correct quantification of various pollutants and helps with scientific research and decision-making. He said: “Anyone and everyone in this world can use these data, analysis, forecasts, early warnings and information so that local environmental protection departments can follow a standardized data collection system. We are currently eliminating errors so that everything is correct. I can say this: Tsinghua University is the only one who is currently compiling such air pollution data.”

Apart from research, Professor He Kebin also teaches the course “Energy and Environment” and serves as the Dean of School of Environment at Tsinghua University. He said: “China is facing many environmental problems and pollution challenges with complicating root causes. This is one of the toughest to solve in the world. There are advanced industrial enterprises and also production units that needs drastic improvements. This poses a huge scientific challenge for students.” With many years of experience in international cooperation under his belt, his students have gained confidence in oversea exchanges and further studies. Many chose to return home to play their role in environmental protection. “They found that the research they did back in China is equally as impressive as those done overseas. Some examples are how the smog in London pushed for more research in chemistry and how chemical pollution in Los Angeles became a way for people to focus more on photochemical research. Perhaps China’s own air pollution will offer a new research direction.” He stresses the need to respect students, especially to understand their capabilities and character. Therefore, there was less talk on “rules and regulations” and more encouragements on innovation and freedom. He also presided over the establishment of the “Tsinghua Environmental Education Development Fund” which aims to promote developments in the field of Environmental Science.

In his daily life, Professor He Kebin chooses to go green and always find opportunities to share with students his concept of green living. “Making reductions every day helps with production.” When speaking about being elected as part of Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2015, Professor He said: “China’s environmental problems are our responsibility. It is also an opportunity. As someone who ‘can still do something’, I will and I must continue ‘doing something’ for China’s ongoing environmental problems. It is a lifelong responsibility for every Chinese.”


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