In China’s Polluted Cities, the Smog May Be Here to Stay

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AFP / Getty Images

The Chinese city of Harbin was hit by suffocating smog

As my colleague Emily Rauhala wrote earlier today, the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, close to the border with Russia, is suffering through some truly horrible air pollution. And given that this is mainland China — home to some of the most polluted cities in the world — that’s saying something:

State media said the PM 2.5 reading [which measures the level of harmful particulate matter in the air] ‘exceeded’ 500. A Reuters report put the figure at 1,000, or 40 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe. Photographs from the city show air so murky it would be easy to mistake Monday morning for deep, dark night.

The intensification of the smog has to do with weather — as temperatures dip in more northern cities like Harbin, the coal plants that provide most of China’s energy and heat kick into overdrive. (It doesn’t help that in 1950, the Chinese government declared that everyone who lived north of China’s Huai River and Qinling Mountains — which includes major cities like Harbin, Shenyang and Beijing — could receive coal-powered heating for free.) The pollution was so bad that the police had to close off highways and the provincial airport because of accidents, while admissions into Harbin’s hospital spiked because of patients with breathing problems.

None of this is new. Anyone who has spent even a short time in China’s major cities knows the air quality on many days is often worse than the worst you might experience in European or American cities. I got my start as an environment writer almost 10 years ago covering the worsening air pollution in Hong Kong, which was mostly due to emissions from cars, coal plants and factories across the border in China’s bustling Guangdong province. Along with glass-covered skyscrapers and hellish traffic, smog has been the most visible manifestation of the startling economic growth China has experienced over the past quarter-century.

It’s hard to know for sure whether air pollution in China’s cities really is getting worse — the data from the central government can be less than credible, so much so that Beijingers came to rely on the U.S. embassy, which tweets out daily air-quality readings from its own sensors. But what’s clear is that awareness of the bad air is rising, even as Chinese citizens have become more emboldened — and more able, thanks to the rise of microblogging services — to complain about environmental problems. During the first six months of the year — which began with reports of an “airpocalypse” in Beijing — foreign visitors to China fell by 5% over the same period of time from the previous year, and the number of tourists visiting Beijing fell by 15%. Concerns over H7N9 bird flu may have played a role, but the idea that China is literally hazardous to your health can’t help either.

At least foreign visitors have a choice. Chinese citizens have to live in polluted cities like Lanzhou, Xining and Jinan, cities where particulate readings are at least six times higher than the target set by WHO guidelines. The health effects are dangerous — researchers estimated that the half a billion people in northern China will live an average of 5½ years less than their southern counterparts, thanks to the thick air pollution in the north. Just last week, the WHO declared that air pollution is officially a carcinogen, and a leading environmental cause of cancer. The 2010 Global Burden of Disease study found that air pollution accounted for 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. Even as China’s citizens get richer, air pollution will ensure that they get sicker too.

The silver lining in the smog is that China’s government is beginning to get serious about cleaning the air, thanks in no small part to popular anger from average Chinese. (One line from China’s popular Twitter-like site Sina Weibo captured the sarcastic discontent in Harbin: “After years of effort, the wise and hardworking people of Harbin have finally managed to skip both the middle-class-society and the communist-society stages, and have now entered a fairyland society!”) Earlier this month the Chinese government announced that it would give rewards amounting to more than $800 million for reducing air pollution in six regions in the north. And in September the government unveiled a plan to reduce air pollution nationwide by putting limits on coal burning and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads on certain days.

But like so much else in China, the success of the new regulations will depend on whether officials at the provincial and city level — where ensuring economic growth is still seen as the prime directive and the best way to guarantee career advancement — actually implement them. And if China really intends to clean up its air, it needs to reduce demand for coal and switch to cleaner sources of energy. There are already signs that the Chinese hunger for coal is slowing down, along with the country’s economy — and tougher environmental regulations could curb that even further. But unlike the U.S., which has been able to use cheap and clean shale gas in place of coal, China is still years away from developing unconventional gas. Which means the skies over cities like Harbin could stay smoggy for years.

Wearing face masks to combat air pollution has become so common in Chinese cities, one designer is working to make the utilitarian accessory into a fashion statement:

32 comments
Sonmi-451
Sonmi-451

This is a ticking health time bomb for it's residents.  It is only a matter of time before they get lungs cancer and die. 

MikeLand
MikeLand

Harbin, Beijing, and Kunming are the dirtiest cities for air quality in China.  For the Olympics, they had to shut down the factories a month in advance of the events.  News crews who showed up several weeks ahead to set up tv production reported that they had to change many of the planned coverage of the games.  Gone were the helicopter and blimp shots because they would never be good enough to use for air.   The air never fully cleared if you remember and that was with limiting vehicle traffic.  A week after the game had ended, Beijing was once again severely polluted.  The main culprit is that China does not require the use of electrostatic precipitators on their coal smokestacks.  It is strictly required in the USA.  Most coal fired plants in the USA also capture CO2 for use in welding applications and in soft drinks.  Places such as Mcdonalds, KFC, LJS, Burger King all use carbon dioxide that comes from generating plants.

BruceS78
BruceS78

These pictures remind me of the worst days of air pollution in LA or some of our east coast cities.  In the late 50s, our air pollution was bad also.  Its fixable, but it takes years of work and it requires everyone to do something.  We had to adopt air pollution standards, create air pollution control devices, ban backyard incinerators and all sorts of other things that some people would today say were socialism.  But at least, we can take a breath without choking on it.  

This is an American success story that took 50 or 60 years to accomplish.  It was messy and very hard at times but maybe everyone ought to look at the mess we had in the 50s and see that it took all sides to fix the problem.   Many of the problems we have today, will require the same level of effort, if they are to be fixed.  I wonder if we have the will anymore.

stan9161130
stan9161130

"But unlike the U.S., which has been able to use cheap and clean shale gas in place of coal."

Really?

Who says fracking technology produced shale gas is cleaner?  A false statement.

Fracking has its own very harmful long-term side effects.  The primary problem, according to Cornell University experts, is the amount of methane will escape from the heavy-handed process of capturing underground gas.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years, according to the the Environmental Defense Fund.  

In addition, fracking will pollute our water sources because those chemicals injected into the underground often leak into the underground water sources.  Once the water aquifer is polluted, it cannot be cleaned.

No wonder the French government and the European union, wise than the Obama government, have postponed any permission of fracking production in their lands.  

Considering Europe is undergoing economic decline and desperate for economic growth, European nations are not willing to undermine their long-term environmental health for short-term gains, which is exactly what our foolish government has been doing--allowing the profit-driven natural gas industry to profit at the expense of our environment.

EndDave
EndDave

Maybe if we stopped cutting down all the trees and begin replanting them along within city's, maybe the air would improve somewhat.  Progress is great, but if the cost is to breath toxic air, is it really worth it.. Makes me wonder though seeing all that smog if cigarette smoking in public is of any major concern.   

DeanJackson
DeanJackson

Communist China will continue to burn coal at an even greater rate until the fraudulent collapse of the Chinese Communist government by 2020, or there about. Beijing, in fact, will inform its agent-leaders within the prospective demonstrations to use the deadly smog issue as one of the many reasons that the Communist government in Beijing must fall, to be replaced by a fraudulent "democratic" government that will be still controlled by the Communists from behind the curtain of duplicity.

The planned "collapse" of the Chinese Communist government has been in the planning states now for several decades, readying itself for the right moment of execution, following the last similar disinformation operation in 1991...the fraudulent collapse of the USSR:

“Since at least the early 1970s, the Communist party of China has been poised to create a spectacular but controlled “democratization” at any appropriate time. The party had by then spent two decades consolidating its power, building a network of informants and agents that permeate every aspect of Chinese life, both in the cities and in the countryside. Government control is now so complete that it will not be seriously disturbed by free speech and democratic elections; power can now be exerted through the all-pervasive but largely invisible infrastructure of control. A transition to an apparently new system, using dialectical tactics, is now starting to occur.” -- Playing the China Card (The New American, Jan. 1, 1991).

For those unfamiliar with this subject, the "collapse" of the USSR in 1991 was a strategic ruse under the “Long-Range Policy" (LRP). What is the LRP, you ask? The LRP is the "new" strategy all Communist nations signed onto in 1960 to defeat the West with. For more on the "Long-Range Policy", read KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn's book, "New Lies for Old" (available at Internet Archive), the only Soviet era defector to still be under protective custody in the West.

Bruce999
Bruce999

The Chinese have three levels.  The poor, the rich, and the elitists. The elitists are the idiots. The U.S. has four classes, the poor, middle class, rich, and elitists.  Also the elitists are the idiots.

daridekas
daridekas

they talk about economic development while at the same time they dont have fresh air to breath!!i dont even want to think how terrible the reality will be for an average chinese in a few years from now.

invetrics.com

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

I remember the 70's in Los Angeles.  There were days you couldn't see across the street.  The air was so thick you had to breathe it with a spoon.  Now, there are very few days when you can't see the San Gabriel mountains or Catalina Island. It took us 30 years, but we did it.  China can do it, too.  Of course, by the time they do, the planet will have burned up, but at least -- hopefully -- they will have tried.

itnomatter
itnomatter

Vote Tea Party so that we can pass China in Air Pollution.

bluesunfish
bluesunfish

In a way, modern China is an excellent example of extreme Republicanism: minimum government regulation and businesses who will literally do anything to maximize profits, including creating dangerous products and excessively polluting the air, rivers and land.

JimmyDemello
JimmyDemello

The smog is so bad here I think it is stripping the enamel off my teeth. I went to the campus store this morning and all the kids were wearing masks. My first impulse was to give them my wallet. The drug stores have set up a booth outside handing out masks - and cut rates on bottles of O2. I feel like I'm in a William Gibson novel.

BingJou
BingJou

It was springtime in 1992 I visited Harbin for the first time.  Had been there a dozen times.  I paid my last visit in 2004. I enjoyed the food and he hospitality.  The deterioration of air quality was obvious during my visits.  I brought it up in our conversations with the locals I did business with.  They were all defensive and viewed my comments on air quality as an insult to the city and China.  One day in 2002 a factory owner and I overlooked the smog from my hotel room.  I lamented on when the government would do something about air pollution.  He was offended and scolded me, "What smog?  It is fog that has always engulfed the city since my childhood." 

A few years ago, my old Chinese business folks on a visit in Los Angeles asserted that I who bought their products polluted the environments of China. It was like that I was responsible for Japan's nuclear disaster if I bought products from a Japanese factory which used electricity to make products. I thought to myself that pollution would get much worse.

I am a Chinese American with parents from Shanghai, but I don't understand them.  They ruined the city, fouled a beautiful river, filled their own air with toxins but refused to admit their own responsibilities.    I still receive Chinese visitors occasionally, but no longer want to visit China. 

Toothmouth
Toothmouth

@BruceS78

Bruce, are you kidding? This pollution far surpasses any Smog I experienced my whole life , ( 65 years) here in  the city of Angels. Even at its' worst  in the late 50's 60's We never hit stage III. Last year Places in China had almost one gram of particulates per cubic meter!  

When people say California's air pollution standards are too stringent I refer to pictures like these to justify why stringent AP controls are a good thing. 

Just to give some perspective, when I was a kid you could never see the beautiful San Gabriel mountains on most summer days; Today in contrast, It would be extremely rare and disturbing not to see them in all their grandeur on any day.   


jpcali
jpcali

@BruceS78  I live in LA then too. I remember when the Bus replaced the electric Street Car. That's when the air really got bad. There were days when one couldn't take a deep breathe without going into convulsions.

jpcali
jpcali

@stan9161130  It's not just "the Obama government", it's all about this experiment in "capitalism" that is America, so get real.

Khronos
Khronos

You do know once in New Zealand they passed a fart tax on cows because the environmental wackos like you thought cows were a main cause of Global Warming.  Guess how well that turned out?   Hint.  That law was overturned.

Khronos
Khronos

Perhaps we should all stop breathing while we are at it.  Then we'll really clean up the air! LOL.  Agenda 21 at it's best!

Khronos
Khronos

I find it absolutely amazing that the New World Order has won.  So much for good defeating evil.  Looks like the good side has not just lost but has been silenced forever.   I wish I could get payed by the New World Order and have a piece of the world while we are at it.

Khronos
Khronos

And they want to get rid of the middle class and almost have.

Khronos
Khronos

Burn up? LOL. That will only happen if the planetary orbit gets out of wack and we move closer to the sun.  Sorry but you Liberals have read too much science fiction.

MikeLand
MikeLand

You actually know so little.  First of all, they have a massive entitlement system.  It controls public resources and health.  All citizens get an allotment of rice because all farms are a member of the greater collective of the communist party.  How Democratic Party is that to require all farms to give a percentage for free to the local citizens.  Next is medicine where Obamacare got much of its ideas.  The Communist Party will take care of you from cradle to grave, an Obamacare promise come true.  No Republican would ever support such a nanny state.  Corporate ownership in China is strictly regulated by the party.  There are numerous government regulations that prevent most private ownership unless you follow through all of the communist party requirements which gives ownership to the party and citizens.  How wonderful for the Democratic party to have part ownership in Ford, GM, Devon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook.  That's how it works and Democrats would love to bring that to the USA some day to allow party officials and members to hold part ownership in all corporate organizations.  Then there is the actual practice of communism with is the main tenant of the Democratic Party.  Everybody owns everything, no corporate ownership.  The Republicans in China would ruin their entire business and government model.

lyh198
lyh198

@bluesunfish minimum government regulation? The Chinese government controls everything. Yea sure big businesses with big money are always willing to do anything to maximize profits, but doesn't this sound familiar in our democratic societies as well?

JimmyDemello
JimmyDemello

By the way, I love living in Harbin, been here for the last 7 years. This is definitely an unusual occurrence. This inversion weather occurs maybe a few times a year and the rest of the year is fairly pleasant because of winds that keep the air clear. There is definite pollution here though, smokestacks belching out yellow stuff and the increase in the number of autos in the last 7 years has been phenomenal.

vegard.aaberge
vegard.aaberge

@BingJou That was in 2004.  The situation today is different. When I was in Tianjin last winter I talked freely about the pollution to chinese people and everyone agreed with me. Also, it just recently chinese people are becoming aware of the detoriation in health they will experience due to the pollution.

Harbin is a second tier city who hasn't really bothered to care much and has detoritated since 2004, but the big cities Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen are getting their act together and are improving their air quality. 

stan9161130
stan9161130

@jpcali @stan9161130   No.  People tried to make Obama listen to the downside of fracking technology.  But he won't.  That's why he should be singled out because now it is Obama's reign and now it is he who has the power.  

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

@Khronos Okay, fine.  It's not going to "burn up" the way a piece of paper does when you put a match to it. Fine.  You win that point.  But this issue isn't about being "Liberal" it's about the ability to look at facts and listen to people who deal in facts.  Your side of the issue is populated with those who think ice cubes are evidence that global warming is a hoax. I've looked under the hood at myriad "Climate Change Fraud" websites and almost every single time have rooted out a name of someone in charge who is or was at one time in the employ of the energy industry.  So please, don't talk down to me about a minor bit of hyperbole. I've done my homework.  Have you?  Or is being a "Conservative" the only requirement for membership in the "It's A Fraud" club?

jpcali
jpcali

@stan9161130 @jpcali No, fracking started long before Obama. But he's culpability is that he hasn't stopped it.