Epic Smog Plagues Beijing

Epic Smog Plagues Beijing

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Smog as seen from space. Blue circle is Beijing. Photo credit: NASA

Smog as seen from space. Blue circle is Beijing. Photo credit: NASA

Over the last few days, smog in Beijing has soared off the charts, as news outlets around the world have reported. The Chinese government has decided it needs to take immediate action to curtail the pollution crisis.

Smog in Beijing is infamous, but over the past week an unprecedented thick layer of smog settled over the city, sparking widespread anger and disbelief. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing runs an air-quality index that measures fine particulates, which are dangerous for humans to breathe, and the index runs from 0 to 500. A reading between 300 and 500 is considered “hazardous.”

The index reached a “postapocalyptic” 755 over the last few days, which is considered “beyond index.” With smog that heavy, according to the Washington Post, people were urged to stay inside, the air burned people’s eyes, and visibility was so bad that it was difficult to see buildings down the street. A factory fire in Zhejiang province went unnoticed for several hours because people mistook the smoke for smog. The air quality is prompting a spike in hospital visits by people with respiratory complications.

The air is so badly polluted that the state-run television and newspapers called for measures to curb pollution, a rare rebuke of the government.

In response, the government is limiting official cars from driving and ordered some factories not to operate. Li Keqiang, the next Chinese Premier, urged Beijing residents to be patient as the government tried to deal with the problem.

But, what can China do to reduce the horrible pollution? One difficulty in dealing with the problem is that the source of the pollution comes from multiple sources. First, China has the largest car market in the world, and it is growing fast as millions of people enter the middle class and buy cars for the first time. Both the rising number of drivers and lax tailpipe emissions standards are contributing to the dirty state of the air. Stricter emissions standards for tailpipe emissions and a transition to cleaner cars and mass transit could reduce local air pollution.

Also, much of this problem can be attributed to China’s voracious consumption of coal. It is the largest consumer of coal in the world, accounting for 46% of global coal consumption.  China burned through 3.3 billion tons of coal in 2010, more than triple the 2nd leading consumer in the world, the United States, which used 0.9 billion tons.  According to the World Resources Institute, China has plans to add another 363 coal-fired power plants in the coming years to satisfy its growing economy.

Not only does China burn coal for electricity, but in the winter individuals also burn coal for heat, releasing soot and particulate matter that form smog.

Cleaning up the air in China will require a tremendous shift towards cleaner sources of energy. While China boasts the world’s largest solar and wind power markets (with a population of 1.3 billion, superlatives are common), renewable energy still only accounts for 0.3% of energy consumption.  China will continue to add renewable energy, but a larger change is needed.

The bigger potential short-term achievement in terms of air pollution could come not from renewables, but from a faster shift from coal to natural gas. This can be done both for electric power generation and for heating (if heating systems can be centralized).

China holds massive reserves of shale gas, but has yet to exploit them. Currently, it still relies upon coal for 70% of its energy, while natural gas only accounts for 4%.

Andrew Revkin at The New York Times Dot Earth Blog touched on this on January 14. He noted that the authorities have already made the decision to switch to gas-fired power plants, at least near Beijing.

But, there is room for a broader coal-to-gas switch.  According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), China holds 1,275 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas resources, which is about 50% larger than reserves in the United States (home of the shale gas revolution). Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for China to clean up its air, and take advantage of its domestic energy resources. There is also the added side benefit of huge reductions in greenhouse gases. (There is one caveat: should China switch from lower-quality dirty coal to cleaner coal, smog can be reduced, but the effect on climate change would be negative, since smog blocks sunlight – effectively cooling the planet. Better to switch to natural gas).

Although many obstacles remain before China can tap into its vast shale reserves, after the ghastly situation in Beijing this week, surely the Chinese government is thinking about how to accelerate this transition.

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