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Coal Problems
Deadly Smog Bringing Life in China to a Grinding Halt

China’s annual war against smog is well underway, after the country’s northern cities all but shut down over the weekend as a thick, toxic haze descended. The skies briefly cleared today, but the forecast for the rest of the week is mostly cloudy… but these clouds can kill. Reuters reports:

Large parts of the north were hit by hazardous smog in mid-December, leading authorities to order hundreds of factories to close and to restrict motorists to cut emissions.

The latest bout of air pollution began on Friday and is expected to persist until Thursday, although it will ease slightly on Monday, the last day of the New Year holiday. In Beijing, 126 flights were canceled at the city’s main airport and all buses from there to neighboring cities suspended, state news agency Xinhua said.

This is now a fact of life for Chinese citizens—when the weather turns cold, and citizens need to turn up the heat in their homes, coal-fired power plants have to work overtime and, as a result, the smog starts billowing.

The costs of this air quality issue are as high as they are varied. Smog causes material damage, but it’s also a massive public health concern, and when you add up the premature deaths and added health care costs, it’s estimated that China loses 6 percent of its GDP annually because of smog. A recent study by the World Bank estimates that air pollution runs up a $5+ trillion tab—yes, that’s trillion, with a t—every year. And while India is making its own case for the world’s worst air quality offender, right now it’s hard to top China in that regard.

There’s another category of cost involved with China’s awful air: lost tourism. A vacation spent hiding indoors from air that can literally shave years off one’s life is a hard sell, and it’s especially unattractive when flights are being cancelled and highways are being closed.

While China struggles with its reliance on coal, here in the United States we can be grateful for an abundance of natural gas that’s not just eating away at Americans’ heating bills, but is also displacing sooty coal-burning power plants, and clearing our skies in the process. For that, we have fracking to thank.

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  • markterribile

    Of course, if we could convince them to buy American bituminous instead of their own lignite, half the problem would go away. That’s true for Germany as well.

  • LarryD

    Actually, the stack filtering technology we’ve developed would work wonders, just as well. Our smog problem was solved well before the natural gas boom.

  • Ali Zabouti

    Having watched the air between my parents’ house in Berkeley, CA, and the Golden Gate bridge cloud up in smog and then clear again after the Clean Air Act, I am positive that attributing clean air to fracking is only partially correct, very partially. It’s really sad to see ideological smog cloud clear thinking.

  • SLEcoman

    The primary cause for air pollution in northern Chinese cities in the winter time is the use of coal for space heating (i.e. homes and commercial establishments). Just like London in the 1950s, China is going to have to migrate from burning coal for space heating to using low sulfur fuel oil or natural gas. Coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities (especially steel mills) are also a significant problem, but, as LarryD pointed out, particulate removal equipment (either electrostatic precipitator or fabric filter baghouse) and SO2 scrubbing technology can control pollutant emissions very effectively. Since China is short on natural gas, natural gas should be primarily used for space heating since it is impractical to install pollution control equipment on small furnaces used for space heating.

    One of the problems in China is that facilities are not closely monitored and forced to operate and maintain their pollution control equipment.

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