Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Getting a Clear Picture on Beijing's Smog

Beijing has a smog problem. The city knows it. The government knows it. The world knows it. 189 days in 2013 experienced heavy air pollution whereas only 176 days registered good air quality. A severe pollution episode last February with a smog blanket resulted in a scientist saying Beijing was “living through a nuclear winter. The pm2.5 level was 505. The air pollution was interfering with photosynthesis. A standard measurement of smog levels is the pm2.5 scale, which measures particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less. 25 and below is considered healthy. Above 300 is dangerous to health. The United Sates Embassy in Beijing records the pm2.5 levels hourly. An app for Beijing’s air quality is available. It currently is 107 at 9:22 Pacific time. It had been above 400 earlier. The government knows it must solve the problem, but it is not confined to Beijing. Smog is pervasive throughout China. 16 of the world’s most polluted cities are in China. I was in Beijing last week. I experienced the smog. I thought in arriving in Beijing that the Beijing smog was a combination of industry and the automobile. I was wrong; it’s much more complicated than that. Yes, Beijing has a problem with its coal based industry and steel mills. In this respect Beijing is analogous to Pittsburgh of a century ago and the infamous 1948 Donora Smog with 20 dead and over 7,000 ill 30 miles from Pittsburgh. The Chinese Academy of Sciences published a study a year ago, reporting the sources of Beijing’s smog. Secondary aerosols (sulfates and nitrates) were responsible for 26%, followed by industrial pollution with 25% and coal burning with 18%. Coal produces 70% of China’s electricity from over 2,300 plants with a new plant coming on line every 10 days. Globalization resulted in in heavy industry leaving the United Sates, often to China. It seems the United States may also have exported pollution to China. 39.2% of the smog comes from outside the province. especially Hebei and Tianjin Provinces. Hebei has a concentration of polluting heavy industry, especially steel. The rapid industrialization of China, as it had earlier in the United States and Europe, is leaving a trail of air, water, and toxic pollution in its wake. China’s industries externalize their pollution by dumping it on the public. Beijing’s smog is partially imported pollution, just as poor air quality from Los Angeles and Orange County, California blows through a gap in the mountains to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Pollution does not respect artificial political boundaries. The imported pollution complicates the smog control problem. Soil dust accounts for up to 15% of Beijing’s pollution. The city has historically been plagued by major sandstorms. The Chinese Academy of Sciences Study reported that waste burning and cars only accounted for 4% of the smog. However, a different study by the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Center reported auto exhausts accounted for 31.8% of emissions within the city. The once omnipresent bicycle has been replaced by the ubiquitous car. Indeed, bikers and pedestrians get no respect from Beijing drivers. China now has 240 million vehicles on the road. 17.9 new vehicles were sold in 2013. The American auto industry has a great year when 16 million vehicles are sold. The government exercised Herculean efforts to clear the air before the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) November 7-12. Heavy industry was shut down within 124 miles of the Capitol and auto driving was restricted. Residents referred to the resulting clean air as “APEC Blue.” China has experienced two decades of rapid economic growth coupled with little pollution control. The country plans to remove 6 million old cars from the road this year. It shut 103 heavy industry facilities last year. It’s not enough. Air pollution controls, at least as strong as throughout the United States, for automobiles and plants must be imposed.

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