China currently faces challenges related to climate change and environmental degradation. Though daunting, work to combat these problems is on-going. The University of Gothenburg currently enjoys a number of research collaborations with researchers in the field at Chinese universities.
“We need to take decisive action to stop the destruction of the environment. At the same time, such an initiative presents an enormous challenge, given the size of the cities and the constant increase in the number of vehicles in use and in energy consumption,” explains Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry Mattias Hallquist.
Since 2014, Hallquist has been in regular contact with Chinese researchers through a project initiated by the Gothenburg Atmospheric Science Centre (GAC) on photochemical smog in China.
Hallquist’s own research focuses on chemical processes in the atmosphere that affect the properties and formation of aerosols in the air in Beijing and Hong Kong. In addition to their health consequences, aerosols also play a major role in cloud formation and in the amount of light transmitted to the earth’s surface.
Researchers already know that the air above China’s major cities contains high levels of nitric oxides and organic substances, which could lead to the formation of high levels of organic nitrates. The nitric oxides come primarily from combustion sources, such as vehicle traffic and energy production. The organic substances can also come from the use of organic substances in industry or from refineries.
“Air pollution levels vary greatly from day to day, since they depend on weather and wind conditions, and on whether or not it’s clean or dirty air that’s blowing in. So, it’s difficult to know whether or not things have improved in recent years as a result of the measures introduced by the Chinese government. Even though our trend analyses have improved, it’s still difficult to confirm this statistically,” Hallquist explains.
The system the researchers are studying is complex, and many different types of expertise are required to make the project a success. The Gothenburg-based researchers involved primarily possess niche expertise in specialised fields, while the researchers in China have a better knowledge of local air pollution and can more easily analyse data published by various public authorities in China.
The work methods employed in Sweden and China differ in some respects.
“Our collaboration with China works well overall. That said, the Swedish approach to work is less ‘top-down’, and the project coordinator strives to achieve consensus, whereas projects in China are managed by a coordinator who has a more authoritative role in deciding what will be done. This difference required some explanation at the project’s outset, but it feels like we’ve found our roles now,” says Hallquist.
The project will run until the end of 2019 and Hallquist will soon travel to Beijing for the first major series of measurements. He will then travel to Hong Kong in the autumn, where he will continue his research for three more months.
Since 2002, a number of researchers and students studying geoscience and environmental sciences in Gothenburg have collaborated with Chinese universities. The focus of these partnerships has been climate change and its consequences for human society. On the research side, close collaboration has been achieved and researcher and teacher exchanges have proven successful. The cooperation between the universities has resulted in a large number of articles published in international scientific journals and in joint research projects. In 2008 a joint dendrochronology research centre, the Sino-Swedish Centre for Tree Ring Research (SISTRR), was opened in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“SISTRR has developed into an internationally competitive research centre, and our close cooperation, which has involved a number of joint doctoral students, has led to a better understanding of the Eurasian climate over the past 2,000 years,” explains Hans Linderholm, professor and co-director of SISTRR.
Collaboration with China has also included student exchange at the master’s and postgraduate levels. This means a double-degree for doctoral students who are accepted and who meet the requirements of both countries’ systems.
“The only difficulty we have encountered so far is that the support from the Swedish side is unable to keep pace with that from the Chinese side, preventing the great potential that exists within the collaboration from being fully realised,” says Professor Deliang Chen from the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Earth Sciences.
Despite this obstacle, the collaboration has given rise to a popular course that includes a unique excursion to China for Swedish students, during which they study the link between climate change and human society. The collaboration has also opened the way for Chinese students to study at the University of Gothenburg.
In a third collaborative project, Gothenburg-based researchers and Chinese researchers are attempting to develop beta-lactamase inhibitors that can combat antibiotic resistance, i.e. substances that could be used in combination with existing antibiotics to prevent bacteria from breaking them down.
“We currently have one professor and two postgraduate students from China in my lab. They work here for periods of 6-12 months. It’s much easier to make progress when the researchers are here and we can communicate daily,” chemist and researcher Mate Erdelyi explains.
He believes that the project’s primary advantages lie in the opportunity to combine different types of expertise and, thereby, to make greater progress collectively than what researchers in Sweden and China could achieve individually.
Collaboration with China
In total, around 30 researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Chalmers University of Technology, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) and Chinese universities in Beijing and Hong Kong are involved in the project on photochemical smog in China, which is funded by the Swedish Research Council.
The University of Gothenburg’s Department of Earth Sciences’ collaboration with China also involves joint field work, courses and excursions in both China and Sweden. To date, around 15 teachers and researchers from Sweden and about 60 Chinese teachers and researchers, along with 180 Swedish students and 40 Chinese students, have participated in the collaboration. The collaborators involved include Peking University, Northwest A&F University, Beijing Normal University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the China Meteorological Administration. The joint research projects are financed by, among others, the following sponsors: the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), the Swedish Research Council, the National Science Foundation China, the Beijing Climate Centre and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.