I was in Beijing for Chinese New Year for a couple weeks in 2009, and when I flew in, I couldn't see the enormous city at all from the sky. It was completely hidden in a cloud of smog. There was some of the worst air quality of the year at that time from all the fireworks plus being the coldest time of year (so everyone is burning coal fires), and a ton of debris in the air from a 44 floor skyscraper that burned to the ground down the street (video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hSPFL2Zlpg)
I never really knew what coal burning smelled like before. Even in the city it isn't allowed, but once we left and went to a smaller town outside Beijing that's when I really got it. It is the heat source for 99% of the population, plus it powers most of the factories. There were days where we were told we shouldn't be outside unless absolutely necessary (which was, since my husband had to commute to his job at Microsoft). At night if you blew your nose your tissue would be grey. If you took a shower, the water would run grey from dust wherever your skin had been exposed. Your clothes would be dusted in a thin layer of gray that never really went away. We tried to combat this by changing out of our clothes just inside the front door and putting them straight into the wash, but it never really went away.
I saw the pictures taken in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, where they had to have street lights on at noon in winter. I also saw the soot-incrusted facade of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library before it was sandblasted clean in the late 1980s.
(By then, the steel mills, and the respective steel-worker housing, were a heartbreaking ghost town for miles along the Monongahela river.)
There are also the stories of the London "fogs" (really bad smogs) in the late 1800s. Coal is better than no power, but it has nasty consequences. Getting past it is tough, and it takes time and investment.
I grew up in a household with harsh winters and coal as the only heating source. As such I can state, that coal is a pretty inconvenient heat source. You have to carrie all the coal you burn from the basement, it requires time to start up, needs permanent oversight and it's almost impossible to adjust the heat to the exact level you want. So my hope is that, as China becomes wealthier, they will abolish coal as a heating source, just for convenience.
It's a little more convenient in at least most of the cities in China. There are coal burning plants every so often in the city, they heat up the water and pipe it through to the nearby apartment buildings. So the average citizen doesn't have to handle the coal.
Of course, this means you don't get to control your heat, and it never heats up that much, just keeps you from freezing. And if winter comes early, you still have to wait for November 15 for when the heat gets turned on.
Why doesn't it heats up much? Is this specific to China?
I live in Russia, we have the same system (coal and gas plants generating not only electricity but heat for homes) and this system is perfectly capable of delivering +28C inside when it's -30C outside. It varies from house to house, but "keeps you from freezing" is not the default.
My guess, from the houses I went into, is their construction. I have to emphasize these are not houses like any first-world person would think of, as soon as you leave the big city there is very little that is modern about China - they're hapharzardly made with found objects, mud that has been packed and dried, thick layers of grasses woven and turned into sheets of ceiling tiles. Everything is handmade, and I have to imagine they are constantly searching for sources of heat loss and patching them. A lot of people also were burning dried animal waste, which was the worst smelling thing I can imagine enduring 24/7. I would be willing to bet if you are really poor you are also getting third rate coal, with lots of fillers that reduce its caloric output of heat (and it is cheaper).
> if winter comes early, you still have to wait for November 15 for when the heat gets turned on.
This happens in the first world, too. In Minneapolis (where I currently live) landlords are, on paper, required to provide at least 68°F starting October 1st. In my experience they turn on the heat a week or two after that, whenever they get around to it, basically. You have nothing for the cold late-September days. You don't control your heat in multifamily buildings, and sometimes it's more like 60° or below and you have to nag the landlord for a week to turn it up. There was a week right around Christmas where I could practically see my breath.
I imagine you can buy your way out of this by paying (a lot) more to rent a nicer, more modern place, but for many, of course, that's not an option.
Yup, MN has that, but the more you complain and fight with a landlord, the more likely they nail you on some technicality, and there goes $100+ of your security deposit on move-out. Then, even if their claim is clearly bogus, a court victory's far from assured and the filing fee would be almost as great as the amount you lost.
Maybe I've just been unlucky but the housing law story in MN seems extremely unfavorable to tenants. Washington, DC was much better. I heard it has tenant-friendly laws but I never had to test that.
I live in a newish apartment building with good insulation. I always have to open a window because it gets so hot (after the turn on date of course, which was early this year).
Think of the poor college students in southern china who don't have heat at all in their dorms (the government, in their wisdom, said heat isn't needed south of the Yangtze). Every year more than a few of them die in fires using some haphazard electrical device to try and stay warm.
I'm sorry, but NYC isn't about as "first world is it gets". From the power, to the plumbing, to the buildings and sewers, and even city-scaping, it's decidedly antiquated compared to many Western Eurpean and Asian countries.
I lived there in '08 and '09. You cannot believe it until you have seen it. The difference during the Olympics was stark. For example, my apartment in Shijingshan had a view of a mountain (~5 mi) and a comm tower (~1 mi). I lived in that apartment for a month before I ever saw either of them. The 'Jing rarely gets full sunlight, rather there is this kind of yellowish lambertian light source in the white-ish gray sky. People who espouse environmental deregulation should go check it out.
> People who espouse environmental deregulation should go check it out.
This is a very interesting comment. Right now in Canada, we have a Conservative majority government that is absolutely hell-bent on environmental deregulation. Their supporters almost exclusively bring up China as the primary reason why environmental deregulation is so important to them ("if we kept our existing regulations, our economy would tank since China would make so much more money").
I very much doubt seeing the skies in Beijing would change anything, but I wonder. Perhaps a campaign in Canada to show images of what China is like would make a difference; on the other hand, the supporters of the environmental deregulation are not the type of people to care about air quality. They value a "strong economy" and money above absolutely everything else, and think that Canada needs to pollute more and more, as much as it can in fact, in order to be a reasonable country in the future.
Air pollution control tends to be extremely cost effective. The benefits from reducing childhood asthma and friends tend to more than pay for remediation technology.
Also, people are weird. In the last few decades, there was a huge push to reduce American coal burning plants SOx emissions because of acid rain. It was surprising how much people responded to lakes dying.
> Air pollution control tends to be extremely cost effective. The benefits from reducing childhood asthma and friends tend to more than pay for remediation technology.
that is only true if it is taxpayers who foot the bill for the technology/equipment. If you were a plant operator, you wouldnt want to install expensive air scrubbers to reduce polution, but which won't actually net you any extra profit.
The gov't has to create incentive schemes - otherwise, the rational actor will use the path of least resistance to profit, and i suspect that path won't include pollution reduction measures.
The cost-benefit ratio changes hugely depending upon the economic development of the country. In a country where individuals are highly-educated and produce a lot of economic value, sure, better health outcomes can be very prudent investments. In a country like China where educational levels are lower, economic value produced by individuals lower, then the numbers are completely different. Lives are unfortunately cheaper there.
This isn't a case of regulation or no regulation-- most of the worst polluters in China are state-owned enterprises. Just cutting off national and local government subsidies for industry would do a great deal to stop the pollution.
State agencies may be immune from prosecution for environmental crime and have no incentive to account for payment of legal damages. Additionally, they may be immune to demand shocks and have no incentive to account for consumer boycott over harmful business practices.
And this is the problem with analyzing things in isolation.
Tell me, what do you think the next step will be after they shutdown?
People need that energy after all - it's not like people will just shrug and go "oh well, no heat for me".
You will actually end up making things worse, under the guise of making things better. Just like a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, an analysis in isolation is worse than useless - it can actually cause you to promote actions that result in the diametric opposite of what you want.
Don't forget that's ~10% thermal efficiency so your really talking about 30% increase in power from the same coal. On top of that they they go for a more complete burn which reduces things like CO and NOx which would otherwise produce smog.
Ahh, I did not think you where pulling numbers from thin air so I just parced it as thermal efficiency so the numbers worked out.
Average coal power plant in the US has ~32-33% thermal efficiency with plenty in the sub 30% range. The best singe cycle coal power plant has 42% thermal efficiency so saying there is a 10% difference is a good ballpark a for thermal efficiency. X thermal energy times (0.3 + .1) is ~30% more than X thermal energy times 0.3.
PS: I do find it hard to be clear when doing lots of efficiency calculations using %'s.
I heard that the change during the Olympics was remarkable. How come the actions they took to clean up didn't stick? You would think that when everyone saw the difference, there'd be a lot of support for fixing the underlying problems.
It required them to shut down a lot of industrial production. A temporary pause in production was a reasonable sacrifice for the Olympics. After the games were over, they worked overtime to catch up. Beijingers have lived with it their whole lives, it is normal for them.
Hum, late summer/fall in Beijing is usually pretty good, so there wasn't much risk during the Olympics (it was easy to mitigate). Now winter is an entirely different problem, I'm just waiting for spring to come.
This has two parts, one part is the externalization of pollution by the rich countries to developing countries, the second is the speed with which China is increasing its energy consumption due to an increase in local consumption.
Their fuel of choice (coal) doesn't help and in many ways what is happening there is comparable to what the industrial revolution did to England not all that long ago.
In 1952 (long after the start of the industrial revolution but before the end of major emissions in the UK) this culminated in the 'great smog':
I don't think the industrial revolution comparison is correct. Pretty much all coal pollutants can be easily dealt with using air pollution control technology (except CO2, but that won't make anyone sick in the short term). The problem is that Chinese energy producers aren't interested in using that technology. Chinese officials know exactly how much of a difference electrostatic precipitators or fabric filters could make for their air quality and they know exactly how much it would cost; they just don't want to spend the money.
My father designs those systems and travelled to China in the late 80s to early 90s; China bought a little but had no interest in outfitting all of its coal-fired plants.
> I don't think the industrial revolution comparison is correct.
And then you go on to prove the point...
The industrial revolution was all about generating profits, the Chinese are doing just that, without much regard for the consequences. They won't be able to do that much longer by the looks of it. Extrapolating from the effects of the 1952 incident to Chinese scales is scary.
During the industrial revolution, people did not fully understand the health effects of air pollution. Nor did they have the technology needed to eliminate it without also eliminating the industrial revolution. Neither of those facts are true today.
On the other hand, I don't think I'm any better informed than Chinese policy makers or technologists in the energy sector. I mean, the technology we're talking about really isn't rocket science: a precipitator is just a pair of plates charged to high voltage with dirty air forced through.
Moreover, Chinese elites certainly travel to the US and Europe and Hong Kong (indeed, many attend colleges abroad) and they get the differences in air quality very well. I would be very shocked if said elites never went back home and inquired as to the difference and what it would take to eliminate it.
My guess is that they could substantially reduce power plant emissions for an increased electrical cost of at most a few percent. On the other hand, I think China uses coal with a much higher sulphur content than is typically used in the US and they have substantial non-power-plant coal burning....
My understanding is that for China the number one priority is more power, ASAP. So they opt for cheaper power plant designs because they want as much immediate generating capacity as they can get for their limited funds (a lot of capital yes, but spread across a very large population.) unfortunately this means skimping on investments like more efficient and lower-emitting technologies, which might save money in the long run, but cost more up front.
There may be an incompetence factor but it sounds on paper rational. Between freezing and coughing what would you pick?
They move _their_ own family out of china as much as possible. I assume that those elites (like the elites in other countries) would also not care about the wellbeing of others, especially if it costs them money and gains them no profit. It's just the way the world is.
A friend of mine sells building-scale air purification systems in Asia and this is definitely the case. The nicest new buildings in wealthier Chinese cities have seriously heavy duty air filtration systems and are built with heavy duty windown and door seals.
The urban middle class buys portable air filtration systems, it's a huge market.
This is just why people like me with experience in living in east Asia (Taiwan from 1982 through 1985, followed later by 1998 through 2001) were appalled that China and India were granted an out from the Kyoto Protocol international convention rules on greenhouse gas emissions. I understood as well as anyone from my experience in Taiwan that China would need time to produce as little pollution per unit of primary energy as the United States does, but not setting up any system of incentives to bring that about seemed like madness to me at the time, and still does. The United States did more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the last year (by substituting natural gas for coal in electric power generation) than China ever has since the Kyoto Protocol was signed by many countries.
>The United States did more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the last year (by substituting natural gas for coal in electric power generation) than China ever has since the Kyoto Protocol was signed by many countries.
I was going to say that the US was the largest contributor to CO2 emissions, so it would be fitting if they were also the quickest to take measures to reduce them. But this page shows otherwise:
I'm surprised that India emits so much less than China, since the Kyoto discussions made it sound like China's per capita pollution was absolutely necessary for development.
Also shocked that Gibraltar produces 158 tons per capita (for comparison, the US is the highest per capita emitter among large economies with 18 tpc). Gibraltar is mediterranean, I wouldn't expect they'd need much heating and cooling. Maybe they're making a lot of extra power for export?
China uses a lot more energy for heating. Things may change once AC becomes more common in India, but that's still a long way off. Also, IT is a larger portion of India's GDP, which takes far less energy than manufacturing.
Face it, China and India are abusing this process. Per Capita is meaningless when a significant portion of your population has no means to contribute to the numbers other than to reduce the perceived impact.
I would love to see China's numbers when the population numbers are reduced to those who are living within the major population centers and not counting those in outlying areas who may not even have electricity.
So count people who have homes which are on the grid or its equivalent.
Yea, when you step off the plane and get that first taste (yes, taste) and smell of Beijing air, ick.
I dodged this one by a single day, ha. Literally the day after I left it went from a week of sun (unheard of) to <30m visibility. Can't really be too happy, because I'm still sick with a sinus infection right now.
Funny you should bring up taste. I spent some time living in Buenos Aires, Argentina--another city shrouded in a perpetual smog--and had the misfortune of discovering this sooty, dusty flavor for myself. I noticed that the dry beans and grains I bought from one particular shop always had a particular off flavor to them. When rinsed, they left behind a grayish water. I finally realized that what was unique about this store (apart from the taste of their products) was that they stored everything in large open sacks and left the large doors to the store open to the street. Stores that stored their goods in closed bins and left their door to the street closed had better-tasting grains and beans.
I was there last week, and still can't believe how bad it is. How can China allow this level of pollution? It is not the cars, but the coal that is doing it to the city. I hope China can find a way to create energy and produce goods without such bad pollution. Beijing, and China, would be a much better place to live it only had clean air to breath on a regular basis. Here is to clean energy!
The tradeoff between economic growth driven by energy use (for production) and pollution.
"The environmental Kuznets curve is a hypothesised relationship between environmental quality and economic development: various indicators of environmental degradation tend to get worse as modern economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point over the course of development. Although the subject of continuing debate, some evidence supports the claim that environmental health indicators, such as water and air pollution, show the inverted U-shaped curve.
It has been argued that this trend occurs in the level of many of the environmental pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, lead, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, sewage, and other chemicals previously released directly into the air or water."
It's not just Beijing. According to the polution ratings I follow, right now (it varies a lot during the day, it's 2AM here now) Beijing is ranked 16th among the ~50 cities that the government rates. The rating right now is also the same as the one posted by the US embassy here.
From what I understand, much of the pollution comes also from other industrial cities and accumulates in this general area of the country (someone that knows more about it please correct me if this is wrong).
The government seems to be taking some actions, but it is hard to know how hard they're tackling the problem.
Also in Beijing. Just in case readers don't know, the Chinese ratings are produced as a daily average, based on equipment outside the city center (i.e. near the airport), while the US ratings are produced hourly from right downtown.
So sometimes the figures are the same, but that usually only happens when coming down from the peak of a particularly bad day, when the average from the previous day's readings are pulling up the official Chinese numbers while the US figures have already fallen to reflect current conditions.
As i arrived in beijing today, i looked out the window and saw the sky completely gray. Having spend two years in Beijing, this site is not uncommon. I remember in the summer of 2010 some days the air was so thick you could not see a half mile.
But today, the air is really bad and even in my apartment now, i can smell it. The best i can describe the smell is that of a campfire.
EDIT -> A campfire that someone threw a plastic bottle into.
This is good news, in a way. China's pollution is being carried around the world every day-- now that local weather conditions are forcing Beijing to bear the full brunt of their poison, hopefully the Chinese government will take action.
They had 1 billion people 30 years ago. Now they're at 1.3 billion. That is, the United States plus 1 billion. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next 20-30 years. Even with their problems, it's starting to look like the century of China.
Actually China is facing a demographic decline-- from growing wealth and the echo of the "one child" policy. If demographics are all that matter, the next century will belong to India, the Middle East, and Africa.
I found Beijing to have poor air, but not nearly as bad as other places in China. Travel out west to Xi'an, and for much of the year it seems as though you can't even see the sky. I heard it told that living there is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day. I don't know if that's true, but anecdotally, spending a few weeks there and I was coughing up some of the nastiest stuff I've ever seen from breathing bad air.
Keep in mind that a couple weeks from now, the Western outcry about this news will die down, but their air will still suck! When I was in Beijing, I felt so terrible for the infants I saw on the streets. My lungs felt worse than ever for the 3 days I was there, but they will likely breathe that air for their entire lives! When are Chinese people going to realize that they can't live in a giant cloud of smog?
From an email three days ago from a friend who's a teacher in Beijing:
Pollution levels were at super high, stay inside or die today.
I can now predict the pollution levels by "how bad the air tastes".
Copper is one.
If zombies were to come walking down the street here, I would not bat an eye.
I live in an apocalyptic /hyper capitalistic waste land.
NG would require a substantial capital investment; running pipelines everywhere is not cheap. It might still be cost effective if the environmental costs of coal burning could be internalized so that coal-burners paid a price, but China seems very far from a Clean Air Act, let alone a cap and trade regime.
Every country that needs more energy will turn to the same proven sources of energy the 1st world used, until a cheaper energy generation solution is available that has the same reliability as coal and oil. This is going to happen in Africa as their energy needs pick up. Solar and wind are not currently the replacements (otherwise China would use them instead).
To all those commenting on Beijing pollution: have you ever been in other Chinese cities? I have been in Shijiazhuang, Chengdu, it can be much much worse. I would like to see air quality index from these places...
But anyway Saturday was nasty in Beijing, it I have no idea if it is psychosoma or real, but I still have the smell in my nose, and headaches.
From what I have read, USA was kinda similar, especially int he pre-EPA days. I have to wonder if today's cancer rates are in large part from that, seems like everyone has /has had a relative with cancer.
After moving from California to Beijing, I would have never imagined a country that could allow this much pollution. In my apartment in the city, I can see the pollution particles collect over the past few days on the balcony. Simply amazing.
How are those electric vehicles powered, by coal? Coal is the only cheap and viable short & medium term energy resource solution for China, and a substantial problem (though only not the only source) for causing the pollution currently around Beijing.
I doubt it. At the insane particulate levels they're discussing the air should be a lot cleaner coming out of the car than it was going in. Even if they don't have catalytic converters (anyone??) they've at least got _air filters_.