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Beijing's Record Smog Poses Health Nightmare

Can China clean the air by switching to cleaner forms of energy?
beijing air



Flickr/Ulrich Thumult

For those living outside China, Beijing's smoggy air is scary but remote. For those who have been living with the past three weeks of foul air, it's a call to action.

Last month, Beijing hit record levels of air pollution, engulfing the city with smog 20 times higher than world safety levels. Airlines have grounded flights because of low visibility, the government is urging residents to stay indoors, and, according to Twitter postings, Swiss-made IQAir home air purifiers are going for $2,300, more than twice their normal price.

The dark, sooty air that shrouded the Beijing region gave ample evidence that, although China's leaders have been pushing clean technology, implementing it at home is a job that remains undone. Continuing widespread use of coal and low-grade diesel fuel, which also produce fine particles of soot, leaves China's record as the world's largest single source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions unchallenged.

"Hmm ... 866 micrograms," Robert Earley, a director at the nonprofit Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation in Beijing, wrote on his Facebook page under a picture of himself wearing a respirator. The level far exceeded the World Health Organization's guidelines of no more than 25 micrograms of PM 2.5 (fine particles) per cubic meter. "That's almost a milligram," he wrote. "That's a lot. Loving the air purifier tonight."

Blue skies have long been a rare sight in Beijing. Since the 2008 Olympics, when government leaders made a national effort to clean the air, experts say the city's smog has become even worse. Coal consumption is soaring, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country burned 325 million tons last year alone, putting China's coal demand at 47 percent of global consumption (ClimateWire, Jan. 30).

But this latest and prolonged spate of smog has both residents and foreigners pressuring the government for change.

"I see it as a system failure exposed in a bad weather condition," said Gang He, a doctoral candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. "Beijing has a basin topography, where air pollutants are easy to accumulate but hard to diffuse."

He explained that Beijing frequently has temperature inversions that prevent the wind from blowing out smog and particulates like soot and dust. And more of them accumulate in the winter when coal-fired home heating and dense traffic combine to produce the worst air conditions.

The government, he argued, has to first figure out the real sources of air pollutants in order to adopt the right measures. That would be followed by a long-requested monitoring and reporting system to inform the public about real environmental conditions. The next step would be to phase out the coal-burning home heating systems and reduce automobile emissions. Finally, the government should set up a policy framework that combines basic research, city transportation planning, environmental responses and governance direction in relation to human behavior.

Greeting the 'cough air'
He recently traveled from Guangzhou in southern China to Beijing by high-speed train in nine hours. He said he was greeted by the "Beijing cough air" and witnessed the "magical realism" of China's development. He asserted China must be transformed into a better place to live amid its fast infrastructure development.

In an attempt to soothe concerns, Chinese leaders have brought government vehicles to a halt and temporarily shut down some factories. But the government has not rolled out any extensive policy directives that would require the joint efforts of various commissions to combat pollution.

One area the government has yet to touch is to replace clean diesel engines in trucks. According to a research document from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, trucks were 5 percent of China's 19.3 million vehicles last year but emitted more than 60 percent of particulate matter from all vehicles.

"China isn't importing clean diesel. It's refining it," said David Vance Wagner, senior researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation. "The main problem is that the big state-owned oil companies are not properly incentivized to upgrade their refineries and provide higher-quality diesel."

Currently, the price of fuel at the pump is fixed by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). The bad air quality has prompted the Ministry of Finance and NDRC to negotiate with the oil companies about subsidies in order to encourage high-quality fuel. The government's endowment is expected to be decided soon.

With the bits and pieces done, Beijing residents are still awaiting a solution that would hit the heart of the problem: the need for efficient regional collaboration.

Before the Olympics, Beijing officials relocated a large number of factories to Hebei province and Tianjin, the city next to the capital, in order to ensure that thousands of tourists flocking into the city could see the blue sky. But the key issue of cutting cumulative emissions has yet to be handled.

Disconnect between local and national efforts
"The pollution is regionally produced," Earley said. "Beijing has to cooperate with Hebei," given the rough relationship between the Hebei government and Beijing government, which is said to regard itself as superior due to its close proximity to the central government.

Then there is the "secondary pollution," which is the chemicals that emerge after the sun heats pollutants as they mix in the atmosphere. No one is responsible for clearing that up under the current laws and operations of the government.

The disconnection between provincial governments is one hurdle at the micro level. A national plan to smooth the expansion of alternative energy is another test.

China's connected wind capacity has grown from 1.3 gigawatts in 2005 to 60 GW by the end of 2012, driven by a feed-in tariff and decreasing cost. The country has also created a feed-in tariff for solar and upgraded the 2020 solar development target from 20 GW to 50 GW.

But, according to He, the challenge for renewables in China is to build a smart grid that is friendly enoug

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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