Friday, February 28, 2014

Beijing's smog

One of the big advantages that the Germans have in coping with environmental problems is that somehow their environmentalists largely escaped the crackpot label.  (This is also true of any of the countries that have made great efforts to make their living habits as environmentally benign as possible—Scandinavia, Holland, Iberia, etc.)  It makes a BIG difference when your environmental strategy includes inventing new equipment.  If you manufacture a green product that must solve a problem as claimed, you are held to FAR higher standards than if your idea of environmental action is organizing conferences and "raising awareness."  These areas of the world have the most successful environmental organization because they have created a culture which teaches that environmentalism must ultimately be a useful activity.

Which brings us to China.  Beijing has developed a nasty winter-time smog problem.  It has advanced beyond the annoying-dirty-smelly stage to bordering on dangerous.  The direction of winter winds has been known for centuries and yet they sited dozens of coal-fired plants upwind from a city with millions of people.  And virtually all that smog is being generated by brand-new equipment.  One can only wonder, "What the hell were they thinking?"  I don't actually know the answer but let me guess.

The folks who design and build coal-fired plants had a bunch of new orders.  They thought, "Where we build these things is not our decision to make, it is our job to create a structure that turns coal into electricity."  The real estate interests based their thinking on who was able to assemble plant-sized parcels in a very crowded country.  The politicians who approved this were thinking, "If I bring electricity to my constituents, they will build statues to me in public squares."  Anyone who had questioned the wisdom of building these coal-burning plants upwind would have become like Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People.  Being an enemy of the people was bad enough in 19th century Norway but is was much worse during China's Great Leap Forward when the big idea was community steel mills.  Social pressure is an awesome force.

So because no one asked basic questions out of fear of social rejection, China has a bunch of brand-new power plants she cannot run without destroying the health of the citizens of her capital city.  This catastrophe was caused by cultural flaws—the kind of flaws that cause you to believe that wind doesn't always blow smoke down-wind or doubt that with enough smoke, you really CAN choke a city.

Smog makes Beijing barely suitable for living

Christoph Ricking / act  24.02.2014

As smog levels rise in Chinese cities, the central government is coming under increasing pressure to act.

Nobody noticed at first when a blaze broke out last year at a furniture factory in the east Chinese province of Zhejiang. It took three hours for the flames and the smoke to draw attention - until then the fire had been camouflaged by the heavy smog.

Air pollution has reached alarming proportions in China. Last year, the average concentration of fine particles was 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing. The particles, which are so small that they can enter the lungs and the bloodstream, are extremely harmful to human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maximum levels of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

According to Chinese statistics, air pollution is responsible for up to half a million deaths per year. A study by the WHO and the University of Washington in Seattle puts the figure at 1.2 million.

'Barely suitable'

Early this month, a report released by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found that the Chinese capital was "barely suitable" for living. This provoked thousands of sarcastic comments in China's cyberspace, especially on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, before the censors deleted them.

And Beijing is not even in the top ten list of cities with the worst air pollution levels in China, says Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Many are much worse. Moreover, many people do not have a choice. They cannot simply leave the city." Therefore, it is not a question of declaring a city unlivable but of taking measures to solve the problem.

An action plan

The government in Beijing has started taking measures. Some 15,000 factories have been ordered to publish the levels of harmful substances they are releasing into the air since the beginning of the year.

Furthermore, last autumn the State Council approved an action plan to combat and air pollution by 2017 in three core areas - the Yangtze Delta, the Pearl River Delta and Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei provinces. Huang Wei from Greenpeace China has welcomed the action plan, but says it "should cover more regions."

The aim is to reduce the amount of fine particles per cubic meter to 60 micrograms by 2017 in Beijing - this is still six times more than the WHO recommends. The plan also aims to curb harmful emissions by energy intensive heavy industry, such as steel and aluminum plants, as well as chemicals factories, within five years. Old vehicles that pollute the roads will be removed from circulation. Energy efficiency will be increased and there will be more use of renewable energy. The government also wants to reduce dependency on coal, which at the moment covers 70 percent of the country's energy needs, to 65 percent. However, the International Energy Agency predicts that China's needs for coal will grow until 2018 so the government's goals might not be reached.

If the government cannot hold its promises, it risks stirring the ire and impatience of the population even more. Even the state television CCTV has criticized the government of Beijing for not doing enough to reduce smog. Two days of comments from its account on Sina Weibo surprised many users who had rarely seen a state broadcaster express so much open criticism; some even thought the account must have been hacked. The censors stepped in after two days, however.

"So long as there is smog, people will not be happy," says Huang Wei. "They will continue to monitor what the government is doing to get rid of the problem."

This week, it showed no sign of going away. The US embassy in Beijing reported that the concentration of fine particulates had exceeded 300 micrograms per cubic meter. more

China wheezes amidst perpetual pollution

mz/pfd (Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP)
DW.DE 25.02.2014

Despite cuts in production at nearly 150 of Beijing's industrial plants, the city has remained veiled by a cloud of pollution that has affected parts of China for days. Residents have been advised to avoid the outdoors.

On Tuesday, the PM2.5 indicator - which measures tiny airborne particles that are easily absorbed by the lungs - reached 444 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing. This is many times the 25 micrograms per cubic meter the World Health Organization considers safe. The PM2.5 reading hit 576 micrograms in nearby Tangshan.

Rain and winds were expected to clear up the pollution to some extent but not until late on Wednesday. Officials in Beijing have advised residents to reduce outdoor activity and to use face masks if they must venture outside.

According to the Reuters news agency, a Chinese state-run newspaper carried a story on Tuesday of the first man to sue the Chinese government for failing to address the pollution problem. The man, who lives in Shijayhuang in the northern province of Hebei, filed a complaint with the city's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau about the health impacts and the economic cost of living with such high levels of pollution.

In addition to a large number of cars on the roads and a booming industrial sector, China relies on coal to meet most of its energy needs. The Chinese government has promised to tackle the country's pollution problem but periods of high pollution are not uncommon, particularly during the winter, when more coal is burned due to the need to heat homes and other premises. more

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