According to the 2016 air quality report by China’s environmental ministry, of the 338 Chinese cities at prefecture level and above, 254 had an average air quality that failed to meet national standards. While that's 11 less than 2015 it still means that over three-fourths of China's major cities are more polluted than even the Chinese government, whose standards are below international standars, thinks is safe. [Source: China's environmental ministry, Shanghaiist, January 23, 2017]

Air pollution and carbon emissions in China have mainly been attributable to coal burning and industrial production during the early stage of economic development. In urban areas, especially megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, emissions from vehicles have become an increasing problem. In recent years, it has been observed that the emissions of long-regulated sulfur dioxide (SO2) and total suspended particulates (TSP, including particulate matter [PM1), have passed their peak and are diminishing. The situation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone (O3) concentration, however, is worsening. Regional air pollution problems are becoming significant. Sometimes vast regions, such as all of eastern and central China, are under very high concentrations of PM2.5 and O3. [Source: Laney Zhang, Foreign Law Specialist, Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Reports, June 2018]

Many of China’s smog-filled cities are ringed with heavy industry, metal smelters, and coal-fired power plants, all critical to keeping the fast-growing economy going even as they spew tons of carbon, metals, gases, and soot into the air. The air pollution and smog in Beijing and Shanghai are sometimes so bad that the airports are shut down because of poor visibility. The air quality of Beijing is 16 times worse than New York City. Sometimes you can't even see building a few blocks away and blue sky is a rare sight. In Shanghai sometimes you can't see the street from the 5th floor window. Fresh air tours to the countryside are very popular.

While air quality has improved somewhat in eastern cities such as Beijing in recent years it has gotten worse on other. According to Greenpeace China's air pollution is moving to the country's west. Provinces in central and western China, including Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan, are now among those with the worst PM2.5 levels in the country, PM2.5 a measure referring to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are hazardous to health. [Source: Reuters, April 22, 2015]

Only 1 percent of the China’s hundreds of million city dwellers breath air considered safe by European Union standards according to a 2010 World Bank study. Air pollution has traditionally been particularly bad in the rust belt areas of northeastern China. A study done by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the amount of airborne suspended particulates in northern China are almost 20 times what WHO considers a safe level. Even in remote areas air pollution levels can be alarmingly high. On the nice new highway between Urumqi and Turpan in Xinjiang it s sometimes difficult to make out the wonderful scenery because brownish smoke produced by natural gas refineries and coal plants.

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Greenpeace East Asia ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; International Fund for China’s Environment .

Living with Air Pollution in China

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “ Increasingly, air pollution is changing everyday life. Face masks are becoming more ubiquitous in the cities, and some affluent parents increasingly choose schools more for their air filtration systems than for their academics. The environment is emerging as a potent political issue.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]

Here in Beijing, high-tech air purifiers are as coveted as luxury sedans. Soon after I was posted to Beijing, in 2008, I set up a couple of European-made air purifiers used by previous correspondents. In early April, I took out one of the filters for the first time to check it: the layer of dust was as thick as moss on a forest floor. It nauseated me. I ordered two new sets of filters to be picked up in San Francisco; those products are much cheaper in the United States. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, August 3, 2013]

"Every morning, when I roll out of bed, I check an app on my cellphone that tells me the air quality index as measured by the United States Embassy, whose monitoring device is near my home. I want to see whether I need to turn on the purifiers and whether my wife and I can take our daughter outside. Most days, she ends up housebound. Statistics released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection revealed that air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 percent of the days in the first half of 2013. I want my daughter to grow up appreciating the outdoors — sunsets and birdcalls and the smell of grass or the shape of clouds. That will be impossible if we live for many more years in Beijing. Even with my adult-size lungs, I limit my time outdoors. Though I ran on the banks of the Tigris River while in Baghdad and competed in two marathons before moving to China, I am hesitant about doing long-distance training for that kind of race here.

Hannah Beech wrote in the New York Times: “I used to joke that we left Beijing in 2014 as pollution refugees. I had tired of strapping little face masks on our boys just so they could commute to school. On many days they couldn’t play outside at all. “The smiling panda patterns on their masks couldn’t disguise the fact that fine particulate matter is particularly corrosive for children’s lungs. We moved from Beijing to Shanghai just as the air there got worse. A couple of years ago, I didn’t realize that our dishwasher had caught fire and was sending smoke throughout the house because everything was already so murky from the pollution. “For years, Beijing residents spoke of fog rather than smog. When the reality finally hit, the government considered some outlandish ideas, like using giant fans to blow the pollution out of town. “In China, pollution became a proxy for discontent that could not be expressed in other ways. People began to question the implicit pact made with their authoritarian leaders: We’ll improve your material life, but don’t question how you are ruled. “But what if double-digit growth rates result in a poisoned earth and air? Many Chinese began a national rethink. [Source: Hannah Beech, New York Times, January 30, 2019]

Anger and Outrage in China Over Air Pollution

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times in 2013, “many Chinese have expressed fury and frustration over the surging levels of air pollution, especially in the north, which in January had record levels of particulate matter. Pollution levels have remained high this summer, and many foreigners and middle- or upper-class Chinese with children are looking to leave the country rather than tolerate the health risks. There has been growing outrage in Chinese cities over what many say are untenable levels of air pollution. Cities across the north hit record levels in January, and official Chinese newspapers ran front-page articles on the surge — what some foreigners call the “airpocalypse” — despite earlier limits on such discussion by propaganda officials. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 8, 2013]

Jennifer Duggan wrote in The Guardian, “On the Chinese social media site Weibo, many users complained about the pollution in Harbin and shared their concerns. One user, Wei Bang Zhu, wrote"someone should take responsibility for the smog…the price of pursuing high-speed development is that people end up being fed with smog. To venture out in an environment like this would be equivalent to teasing about one's own health and life." Another, Justop88, said: "Too horrible, it's like the end of the world in American movies."References to "feed people with smog" have become popular on Weibo and is a sarcastic play on the expression "serve the people" as the two have a similar pronunciation. [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, October 23, 2013]

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, For a long time “state media was loathe to use the word "pollution," opting instead for the euphemism "fog." But popular pressure is building, making it harder for policymakers to ignore the foul air in many of China's largest cities. After the staggeringly bad bout of air pollution in January 2013 , micro-bloggers took to posting pictures of themselves online wearing masks. Some held handwritten signs that read, "I don't want to be a human vacuum cleaner." The phrase became the top-trending topic on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, attracting several million hits. "Return my blue sky and white clouds," wrote a blogger named Xiao Yu. "If economic development needs to come with the price of such heavy pollution, I would rather go back to the 1980s." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2013]

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympics found that 74 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about air pollution and things have gotten much worse since then. In 2014, Chinese media reported that a man in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province near Beijing, had sued the local environmental protection bureau for failing to rein in the smog. Li Guixin filed the lawsuit asking the municipal environment protection bureau "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law", the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily reported. Li is also seeking compensation for the pollution. "Besides the threat to our health, we've also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary," he told the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily. “Li told the newspaper that he had bought an air purifier, masks and a treadmill, but none had helped him to overcome the pernicious health effects of the smog. He is seeking RMB 10,000 (£1,000) in compensation. "I want show every citizen that we are real victims of this polluted air, which hurts us both from a health perspective and economically," he said. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, The Guardian, February 25, 2014]

Benefits of Severe Air Pollution in China?

In December 2013, China Central Television (CCTV) posted an essay on its website that outlined the “five surprising benefits” of the country’s severe air pollution: 1) it unites people, 2) makes them more equal, 3, 4) raises citizen awareness and knowledge and 5) leads to an elevated sense of humor. The essay went on to note that citizens unite around a common complaint that doesn’t discriminate based on age, residence or income.

The Wall Street Journal reported: “While it wasn’t clear whether the piece was meant to be genuine or satirical, neither official media outlets nor members of China’s online community took too kindly to the broadcaster’s apparent attempt at putting a positive spin on the toxic air. “It’s beyond one’s imagination to find ‘positive energy’ to unite the people in smog,” the Beijing Times said. “But for some people, one way to show their existence is to treat a funeral as happy event and find pleasure in disasters.” [Source: Brittany Hite and Liu Jing China Real Time blog, Wall Street Journal, December 10, 2013]

China’s bloggers offered up to CCTV their own suggestions of benefits from the pollution. “Add this to the list: the opportunity to go abroad!” one user of Sina Weibo, China’s biggest Twitter-like microblogging platform, wrote. “In the smog, people cannot be seen clearly, so everyone looks more beautiful because all their imperfections are hidden by the smog,” another quipped. Social media users also had took exception to a report in the Global Times, a nationalist-leaning tabloid published by the Communist Party flagship newspaper People’s Daily, that argued the country’s smoky skies benefitted China militarily by interfering with enemy surveillance and weapons guidance systems.

Kinds of Air Pollution in China

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from the Economist
Air pollutants include sulfates, ozone, soot, organic hazardous material, heavy metals, acid aerosols black carbon, cement dust, desert dust and mercury. Black carbon, the soot produced by cars, stoves, factories, and crop burning are a major component of Chinese haze. The small diameter of the carbon particles means they can more easily be inhaled and can penetrate deep inside the lungs, providing absorption sites for secondary toxins that would otherwise be cleared. This compounds the danger, making black carbon an especially potent risk factor for lung disease and premature death. Judged as the most dangerous for health, suspended particulates are caused mainly by coal and car exhaust. In the cities it is also caused by construction. In the spring it is caused by dust from the sand and dust storms in the Gobi Desert

Particulate matter, which includes dust, soot aerosol particles less than 10 microns in size is a major source of air pollution. Particulate levels are measured in micrograms by cubic meter of air. In United States levels about 50 micrograms are considered unsafe. In Europe the levels are around 40 micrograms. In Beijing that average level often exceed 150.

China is the world’s leading source of sulfur dioxide. Levels of the pollutant in the air in the 2000s were comparable to Japan in the 1970s when air pollution was a major problem there. Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain. Sulfur dioxide emissions alone are though to cause damage equal to 12 percent of China’s GNP. China's sulfur dioxide levels are not as high as they once were.

China’s emissions of nitrogen oxide — traditionally one the main causes of urban smog — increased 3.8 percent a year 1980 to 2005. Nitrogen oxide is released by power plants, heavy industry and cars. Nitrogen oxide emissions in China have been reduced. Nitrogen dioxide is not a serious problem. Levels of the pollutant in China are comparable to those in Japan. Even so levels in Beijing rose 50 percent between 1996 and 2006.

There are also problems with ozone and paticulates measuring more than 2.5 microns (See Below). Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons emitted by vehicles and refineries. It affects photosynthesis. High ozone levels recorded in the lower Yangtze basin are thought to be linked o crops yields that are 25 percent lower than those in unpolluted areas.

PM2.5 Pollution in China

In 2019, nearly 90 percent of the 200 cities with the world's highest levels of deadly micro-pollution — PM2.5 — were in China and India. Taking population into account China ranked 11th according to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, jointly released by IQAir Group and Greenpeace. PM2.5 — Particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter, roughly 1/30 the width of a human hair — is the most dangerous type of airborne pollution. These microscopic flecks are small enough to enter the bloodstream via the respiratory system, leading to asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) most of the seven million premature deaths attributed by to air pollution are caused by PM2.5 particles, which originate in sandstorms, agriculture, industry, wildfires and especially the burning of fossil fuels. [Source: Marlowe Hood, AFP, February 25, 2020]

AFP reported: “Among the world's megacities of 10 million or more people, the most PM2.5-toxic in 2019 was the Indian capital New Delhi, followed by Lahore in Pakistan, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kolkata in India, Linyi and Tianjin in China, and Jakarta, Indonesia. Next on the list were Wuhan — epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak — along with Chengdu and Beijing. The IQAir report is based on data from nearly 5,000 cities worldwide. "Air pollution is the world's leading environmental health threat," said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes. "Ninety percent of the global population is breathing unsafe air."

China's average urban PM2.5 concentration dropped 20 percent in 2018 and 2019, but in 2019 it still counted 117 of the 200 most polluted cities in the world. All but two percent of China's cities exceeded WHO guidelines for PM2.5 levels, while 53 percent exceeded less stringent national safety limits. The UN says PM2.5 density should not top 25 microgrammes per cubic meter (25 mcg/m3) of air in any 24-hour period. China has set the bar at 35 mcg/government. As of 2018, China had more than 1,000 monitoring stations that make PM2.5 data available to the public in realtime in 200 cities.

“Climate change has begun to amplify the health risk of PM2.5 pollution, especially through more intense forest fires and sandstorms made worse by spreading desertification, the report found. Across a large swathe of northern India and north-central China, meeting WHO standards year-round for PM2.5 pollution would increase life expectancy up to six or seven years, according to the Air Quality Life Index, developed by researchers at the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago. While the link with lung cancer was well established, a recent study showed that most excess deaths from air pollution are caused by heart attacks, strokes and other types of cardiovascular disease. Small and larger particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3) have likewise been linked to drops in cognitive performance, labour productivity and educational outcomes.

China’s Struggle with PM2.5 Pollution

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times: PM2.5 is the “most pernicious measure of urban air pollution and among the most hazardous because the particles easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. Caused by dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, factories and construction sites, they increases the risk of cardiovascular ailments, respiratory disease and lung cancer if people are chronically exposed to them. Car and truck exhaust is a major source of fine particulate pollution, a particular problem in Beijing, where the number of registered cars has skyrocketed from 3.5 million in 2008 to 5 million in 2011 and 6 million in 2020 The Chinese government began monitored exposure levels in 20 cities and 14 other sites in the mid 2000s but has kept the data secret. In the summer of 2010 the American Embassy in Beijing began posting PM2.5 readings on it website, and only after that did the Chinese government start doing the same.

While China has made gains on some other airborne toxins, the PM 2.5 data is far from reassuring. In an unreleased December 2010 report relying on government data, the World Bank said average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in northern Chinese cities exceeded American limits by five to six times as much, and two to four times as much in southern Chinese cities. Nine of 13 major cities failed more than half the time to meet even the initial annual mean target for developing countries set by the World Health Organization. Wang Yuesi, the chief air-pollution scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated this month that Beijing needed at least 20 years to reach that goal

Wang told Outlook Weekly , a magazine owned by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, that Beijing’s PM 2.5 concentrations have been increasing by 3 to 4 percent annually from 1998 to 2010. He said the finer particulates absorbed more light, explaining why Beijing so often is enveloped in a haze thick enough to obscure even nearby buildings. Air pollution in the city and in nearby Tianjin is so severe that “something must be done to control it,” he wrote on his blog . Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told China Daily month that without intervention, PM 2.5 particulates would replace smoking as China’s top cause of lung cancer. Beijing health experts told the newspaper that while smoking rates were flat, the city’s lung-cancer rate had risen 60 percent in the past decade, probably as a result of air pollution.

PM 2.5 particles are so fine that they can lodge deeply in human lungs. "The smaller the particle, the more hazardous it is for public health," Shi Yuankai, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital, told the China Daily. Protective measures like wearing face masks barely help because the particles are too small," he said.

“Beijing officials have said that vehicle emissions account for 22 percent of the PM 2.5, and another 40 percent is from coal-fired factories in Beijing and nearby provinces. In February 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued stricter factory emissions standards for six coal-burning industries. First on the list is the power industry, which accounts for about half the coal consumption in China.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]

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Coal plant in Linfen

Causes of Air Pollution in China

Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China. China gets 80 percent of electricity and 70 percent its total energy from coal. Factories and homes run on power from plants that overwhelmingly use coal; and in the winter, many heating boilers in the north also burn coal. Before much of the coal burn was high-polluting high-sulfur coal. Less of this used than before and more coal plants have scrubbers and other anti-pollution devises. Around six million tons of coal is burned everyday to power factories, heat homes and cook meals.

More cars and trucks crowd the roads. Expanding cities consume cement, steel and chemicals, the production of which add pollutants to the air. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities. In Wuhan in Hubei Province old tires and asphalt are used as fuel to fire pottery kilns, creating some nasty pollution in the process. In February 2013 Deutsche Bank said that China’s current economic policies would result in an enormous surge in coal consumption and automobile sales over the next decade. “China’s air pollution will become a lot worse from the already unbearable level,” analysts at the bank ssaid, calling for drastic policy changes and “a strong government will to overcome the opposition from interest groups.” The report estimated that the number of passenger cars in China was on track to hit 400 million by 2030, up from 90 million in 2012. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]

Some have suggested Beijing’s switching winter heating sources from coal to natural gas made smoh worse. Beijing undertook a massive and costly campaign to use cleaner energy. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, producing water and carbon dioxide when burnt, instead of the dust and smoke that coal produces. But the water vapour that burning natural gas produces can also increase the concentration of air pollutants near ground. Ongoing research has suggested that tiny water molecules in the air may speed up chemical reactions, leading to worse smog. Wang Zifa, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Atmospheric Physics, said the burning of natural gas in China pumped more than 300 million tonnes of water into the atmosphere each year — equivalent to 30 times the amount of water in Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. Nevertheless, water vapour accounts for only a small, “almost negligible” fraction of water in the whole atmosphere, Wang said. “The use of natural gas hence was not a big contributor to the high humidity of Beijing’s smog, he said. [Source: South China Morning Post, 21 December, 2016]

Coal and Air Pollution in China

The burning of coal is the biggest factor contributing to northern China’s smog according to Professor Chai Fahe, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. Emissions from burning coal in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei — the most developed regions in northern China — were five times the national average. The situation worsens in winter when many urban and rural families in those regions also relied on coal for heating, he said. [Source: South China Morning Post, 21 December, 2016]

The production of coal-fired plants has slowed to some degree. They are no longer being produced at the rate of one a week. By the early 2010s they added 80 gigawatts of power a year, down from 100 gigawatts a few years in the mid 2000s. It was estimated that the use of cheap coal cost China $248 billion, the equivalent of 7.1 percent of GDP, in 2007 through environmental damage, strains on the health care system and manipulation of commodity prices. The figure was arrived at by the Energy Foundation and the WWF by taking into consideration things like lost income from those sickened by coal pollution. Coal has been tied to a number of health problems. In towns like Gaojiagao in Shanxi it has been linked with a high number of birth defects such neural tube defects, additional fingers and toes, cleft pallets and congenital heart disease and mental retardation.

Many places still burn large amounts of coal for heating. Coal produces thick, smoggy smoke. High sulfur coal is particularly nasty. It produces a rotten egg smell. Vaclav Smil, a Canadian expert on the Chinese environment from the University of Manitoba, told the New York Times, the Chinese “have this coal; they have to use it....Much of the coal is now coming from these very small coal mines, but there is no sorting, no cleaning or washing and this kind of coal generates a tremendous amount of pollution."

Low-Grade Coal Used for Heating: A Major Pollutant in China

Around 200 million residents in rural China, mostly in the northern parts of the country, use coal for household heating during the winter. To save money, many of them tend to use inferior types, according to the Economic Daily. The Chinese Daily reported: An inspection by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of 22 cities in northern China in 2015, officials came to the conclusion that coal burning — especially the low-quality coal — is the main cause of the steep deterioration in air quality over the winter months. [Source: Zheng Jinran and Wang Yanfei, China Daily, December 12, 2015]

“Coal burning for heating is a widespread phenomenon in the vast rural areas surrounding the few large modernized cities that have made the shift to cleaner energy. The inspectors found that 22 percent of the coal samples from Beijing failed to meet national standards, along with 27 percent from Tianjin and 38 percent from Hebei province, which has a much larger rural population.

“In many cities in Henan province, the coal used in rural areas was not covered by the local environmental authorities' regular monitoring system, the inspectors said. In fact, the management of coal usage in rural China has been loose, they said. Related government agencies, such as those in charge of housing and rural development, were also criticized for having failed to be environmentally responsible. As winter came around and many rural households started to use coal stoves for heating, it took only days for smog to build up in the skies of the region.

“Rural residential heating makes up only 2.6 percent of China's coal use, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. "But its impact on smog can't be ignored," said He Zhicheng, chief economist at Agricultural Bank of China. National environmental watchdog's data show that in November 2015 the reading of the major hazardous airborne pollutant PM2.5 saw an increase of close to 60 percent from 2014 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, one of the three largest city-clusters on the Chinese mainland. There were four more smoggy days in Beijing in November 2015 compared with November 2014.

Coal and Acid Rain in China

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the main pollutants that cause acid rain, which is usually caused when sulfur emitted from coal-fired power stations and commercial installations mixes with oxygen. Nitrogen-oxide-derived acid rain is produced when nitrogen emitted from vehicles and power stations and other sources combines with oxygen. Acid rain has at least one positive point. It reduces the amount of methane.

China is the world’s top producer of airborne sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from coal combustion. Chinese factories and power plants spewed out 25.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide, the chemical that causes acid ran, in 2005, up 27 percent from 2000. By contrast the United States produced about 11 million tons. Levels of sulfur dioxide emissions in China in the mid 2000s were double what was regarded safe. Coal-burring power stations and coking plants are the main sulfur dioxide producers.

One survey in the 2000s found that a third of mainland China was regularly soaked in acid rain and half of the cities and counties surveyed receivde at least some acid rain. In some places every rainy day is an acid rain day and limestone buildings are dissolving in the acid air. The Guangdong-Guangxi-Guizhou-Sichuan basin south of the Yangtze is the largest single area in the world affected by acid rain pollution. A study in the early 2000s found that one third of crops in the Chongqing area had been damaged by acid rain. China sends some its acid rain abroad.

Underground Coal Fires in China

20080317-coal fire
A coal fire
Underground coal fires in China at one time were consuming 20 to 30 million tons of coal a year, pumping tons of ash, carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and sulfur compounds into the atmosphere. Some of the fires have been burning for centuries. By one count there are 56 underground coals fire currently burning in China. Coal fires produce huge amounts of harmful carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The fires produce as much carbon monoxide each year as all the cars in the United States.

The underground coal fires are revealed by fumes and smoke that pour from cracks in the earth. The Wude coal field in Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest coal fields, is the home of China’s largest coal fire and some argue one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. Sixteen of China’s coal fires burn here, spewing out acrid clouds of sulfur dioxide. The fires at the Wude field are at a depth of between 110 to 220 feet. They advance about 100 feet a year. An official in charge of putting the fires at Wude told Smithsonian magazine: “An underground coal fire is like a dragon. We can sense the dragon’s tail, that is, the area already burned. But satellite images show that the hottest, densest parts are far below the surface, or the dragon’s head. We can predict the path, and prepare to chop off its head.” Workers try to extinguish the fires by starving them of oxygen by burying them under a 3-foot-layer of dirt. Pouring water on them produces dangerous methane gas, so workers pour a water-clay slurry into cracks instead of water if a dousing strategy is employed. Even when the fires are extinguished the ground can take years to cool down.

In the early 2000s only 10 percent of China’s coal underground fires were being fought. They posed little immediate threat other than polluting the air in fairly remote places and cutting off access to some coal supplies. There have been some successes. In 2003, a centuries-old fire was extinguished near Urumqi after a four year battle. In 2009, a number of coal fires, one of which had been burning for 60 years, were put out in Xinjiang. The fires, which has been caused illegal mining and spontaneous combustion, had spread to more than 900,000 square meters and consumed 10 million tons of coal a year. The fires were put out through a coordinated plan of drilling, water injection and using earth to cut off oxygen.

Cement Plants and Pollution in China

Cement plants are among the biggest air pollution producers in China. They produce lots of dust in various sizes. They also need a lot of energy — heat of more than 2,600 degrees F from 400 pounds of coal for each ton of cement — to convert the limestone and other materials into the intermediate form of cement called “clinker.” Production generates huge amounts of heat that is released into the air.

To reduce coal transportation costs cement plants are often built in places that have a supply of coal nearby. Mining, coal processing and cement making produce high levels of pollution. Areas with cement plants can often be determined from many kilometers away by the grayish color of the air and the layers of dust on trees and the road.

Advanced cement plants recycle heat normally released into the air and use it to run turbines that generate electric power. The power then can be used to run the plants. These plants require 60 percent less energy, enough to cover the millions of dollars needed to build the advance plant, which take about in four years to construct. The technology for these system is supplied by the Chinese firm Dalian East Energy Development, which exports the technoloy to countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Pakistan and plans to use similar technology on steel plants in the future.

Ozone, Chinese Air Pollution and Global Warming

China produced 11,540 metric tons of CFCs in 1986 compared to 311,021 metric tons by the United States. In 2007 China produced 13,060 tons of CFCs compared to 1,088 by the United States. In 1980, China had only 32,000 refrigerators. By 1990 that figure jumped to four million. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) leaking from refrigerators and air-conditioners are a major source of ozone-depleting gases. China now has a huge refrigerator industry, producing chlorofluorocarbons.

In 1987 China was reluctant to sign the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to save the earth's ozone layer, because it believed it couldn't afford the research costs to come up with new ozone-friendly coolants. When the United States announced it would share the costs, China signed the protocol. The use of ozone-layer-depleting chemicals in India and China and to a less extent in Indonesia threatens to cancel out progress made in reducing the use of these chemicals in the developed world.

In western Tibet-Qinghai there is a mysterious "ozone valley" that thus far scientists have been unable to explain.

Charles W. Petit wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “In southeastern China, where haze has cut sunlight by 2 percent to 3 percent every 10 years since the 1950s, temperatures are dropping, while rising elsewhere in the country, presumably because of greenhouse gases. The changed temperature patterns have rerouted storm tracks, one recent Chinese study said. The study blamed the shift for severe floods in the nation's south in recent years, coupled with drought in the north. It ranked the new weather pattern as the greatest sustained change in China's climate in more than 1,000 years. [Source: Charles W. Petit, U.S. News and World Report, March 17, 2003 :|:]

“Some scientists also suspect that the pollution cloud could be cooling the sea surface and slowing evaporation in the far western Pacific, off Asia. The effects could ripple across half the globe to the United States, because the western Pacific is the breeding ground for El Niños, the bouts of Pacific warming that change rainfall across the Americas and beyond. All of this is enough to make Asia's brown cloud, and the sparser hazes elsewhere, into a global climate threat. Fortunately, hazes are far easier to counter than greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Clean up industry and smother the fires, and in a few weeks rain would wash the skies clean. Carbon dioxide, in contrast, lingers for centuries, and ordinary pollution controls can't touch it. :|:

Unreliability of Chinese Pollution Data and Information

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Whether government statistics on pollution are reliable is another issue. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. While some argue that the release of ever more detailed data makes fudging ever harder, Mr. Andrews, the environmental researcher, contends that the government systematically manipulated data and standards to create more “blue sky” days. Some experts contend that the government shies away from epidemiological studies on pollution’s health impact. “They are really unwilling to match it to the health data because that would be much more alarming,” said one specialist who spoke anonymously for fear of angering Chinese officials. “They want to get the counts down first.”

Kyodo reported: Many Beijing residents worry about discrepancies between China's official air quality readings and air testing conducted at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which conducts its own measurements. While China's national environmental monitoring center reported that Beijing's air was slightly polluted Monday, the U.S. Embassy, which measures smaller particulates, or those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, rated it as "hazardous.' [Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2011]

China's pollution monitors have been struggling to maintain credibility since a clear run of blue-sky days during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when factories were forced to temporarily close and car use was severely restricted. "The government has created a story that air pollution has improved, but actually it has not," Steven Andrews, a Beijing-based environmental consultant, told Kyodo News. "China actually has stringent environmental regulations. But if they are not being followed in the capital, you can just imagine how bad it must be in other areas," he said.

The Beijing government has even criticized health experts for taking health precautions to deal with the air pollution. When an American doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital recommended this month on his blog that people wear face masks, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper ran an article rebuking him. The newspaper quoted an anonymous doctor at Peking University People's Hospital as saying, "The suggestion to wear air masks will make trouble out of nothing, as we've had polluted air for a long time, and we shouldn't be living with an American standard." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2011]

Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2) Impact Lab; 3,5 ) Natalie Behring, Bloomberg, Environmental News.; 4) University of Utah; 6) Environmental News; 7) David Wolman Blogspot; 8) NASA; 9) Julie Chao ; You Tube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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