Monday, October 21, 2013

Asia's "Great Smog"

Harbin, a city of roughly 6,000,000 in northeastern China (and the venue for the celebrated Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival each winter), is experiencing a level of air pollution reminiscent of London’s “Great Smog” in 1952.

The New York Times’ Sinosphere blog reports that the air quality index (AQI) in Harbin topped out at 500 (the highest number on a scale where only numbers under 50 are considered healthy), forcing the closure of schools and the city’s airport. PM 2.5 (especially hazardous particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter) was up to 1,000 milligrams per cubic meter. In contrast, the AQI today in Shanghai, where the air is none too clean, has ranged between 127 and 183 with PM 2.5 generally under 100 milligrams per cubic meter. (This data, updated hourly, is available from the U.S. Department of State’s mission in China on this site.)

Although the start of the winter heating season has exacerbated air quality problems in Harbin, where coal-fired plants supply most municipal heat and power, a development-environmental quality dilemma exists across China. There is abundant coal in China, but coal is not clean. Consequently, China's leadership is facing demands for forms of development that are more sustainable than what has been offered for the past thirty years.

Coal barges on the Huangpu in Shanghai.