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Fear the Airpocalypse
Dreaming of Blue Skies over Beijing

China’s smog problem has been flaring up in an especially bad way recently. Air pollution in Beijing has hovered in hazardous levels for the past week. This is in part a seasonal phenomenon, as coal plants work overtime to heat Chinese homes during the winter, but that isn’t stopping the country’s leadership from taking the smog problem increasingly seriously, as the WSJ reports:

China’s National Meteorological Center said Tuesday it reaffirmed the region’s orange alert, its second-most-severe air-pollution warning after red under a system enacted in October amid rising public pressure on authorities to act on pollution. That alert level requires a halt to construction work and orders factories to temporarily reduce emissions by 30%. Fireworks and outdoor barbecuing are also banned. Children and the elderly are advised to stay indoors, and residents are encouraged to use public transportation instead of cars.

Earlier today, the country’s environment ministry promised to “harshly punish” the responsible emitters, but regulators are fighting an uphill battle. China’s energy infrastructure is already heavily dependent on coal; the country burns nearly half the world’s supply of the sooty rock, and replacing coal-fired plants will be slow and expensive. In the meantime, those citizens stuck inhaling the toxic air are becoming more restive, taking to social media to vent their frustration, or as Reuters reports, launching lawsuits against the government:

Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang, capital of the northern province of Hebei, submitted his complaint to a district court asking the city’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law”, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said.

He is also seeking compensation from the agency for residents for the choking pollution that has engulfed Shijiazhuang, and much of northern China, this winter…”The reason that I’m proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we’re the real victims,” Li was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

To clear its skies, China needs to do three things. First, it must continue to pursue its shale gas resources. Though those sources have proven difficult to tap so far, they are the world’s largest. Second, it needs to invest in nuclear reactors, which can provide the kind of base-load power that coal plants do without the nasty emissions. Third, it needs to hasten the transition toward an information economy, by building up its infostructure, and by incentivizing best practices like telework.

None of these will provide the kind of immediate changes that Chinese urbanites’ lungs demand, but long-term they’re the best hope for blue skies in Beijing.

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  • free_agent

    Are they even using the air pollution control equipment that is standard in the West? We generate a lot of power from coal in the US, but the pollution output of our coal plants isn’t anywhere near that hideous.

    • Thirdsyphon

      Apparently only 15% of Chinese coal plants use scrubbers, probably because Beijing’s central planning targets have been focused exclusively on generating power to feed their ravenous manufacturing sector, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.
      Pollution control equipment can be effective, but it’s costly to install and maintain; and it only works up to a point. I’m having a hard time getting clear numbers on the cost of retrofitting uncontrolled plants with modern filtering technology. Only environmentalists, energy lobbyists, and the companies selling these solutions seem interested in studying this topic, and all of them have strong incentives to slant their analyses. And in any event the effectiveness of these technologies seems to vary due to local conditions like the technical competence of the power plant’s operators and the baseline quality of the coal being burned as fuel. Neither of those factors seems to favor China, where the energy industry has almost no familiarity with mitigation technology and the local “flavor” of coal, though plentiful, contains an exceptionally high level of toxins.
      In the U.S., by contrast, a large part of what’s helped us get our toxic coal emissions under control is our ongoing switch from the high-sulfur coal found in Appalachia to the purer coal drawn from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. (Although even Appalachian coal has less sulfur and other toxins than the Chinese average).
      Basically, China has its work cut out for it.

  • Boritz

    Shale gas, nuclear, and information economy, but what about Al Gore and carbon credits? In theory, with enough credits the smokestacks can continue to belch.

  • Thirdsyphon

    China could also invest in installing scrubbers in its currently existing stock of coal plants (only 15% have them now) to at least remove some of the sulphur dioxide and gross particulate matter from their airborne emissions, although that’s an expensive and imperfect solution.
    It’s expensive because, in addition to the cost of the scrubbers themselves, the pollutants they filter out still have to go somewhere which is usually into the local water table. That’s still preferable to breathing the stuff, but it’s not exactly a boon to the ecology or to human quality of life.
    It’s imperfect because not even the best scrubbers can filter out 100% of gross particulate matter and sulphur dioxide, and there are subtler pollutants (such as mercury and ultrafine ash particles) that they don’t catch at all. These pollutants have resulted in a 465% increase in China’s rate of death by lung cancer over the past 20 years.
    Please note that the above has nothing to do with CO2, global warming, carbon credits, or Al Gore. Reasonable people can agree to disagree about all that, but there’s nothing remotely speculative about the direct human health consequences caused by coal emissions. With the right technologies in place, those risks can be mitigated (as we’ve done in the U.S.) but never eliminated entirely.
    The fundamental problem is that coal is a profoundly filthy source of energy –again, I’m talking here about toxins, not CO2– and there’s only so much that can be done to clean it up. It’s a cheap solution in the short run, as most early industrial economies have discovered, but over the long term its shortcomings become apparent, which is why most countries have moved away from coal energy as soon as they got rich enough to afford to.

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