Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

China

David Suzuki, climate science’s caustic Dr Doom, rips into consumerism, hails China’s green tech

Japanese-Canadian geneticist offers gloomy prognosis of looming catastrophe, and rubbishes the idea that humanity can innovate its way out of its problems

http://www.scmp.com/print/lifestyle/article/2079813/david-suzuki-climate-sciences-caustic-dr-doom-rips-consumerism-hails

David Suzuki is a force of nature. The Canadian geneticist turned celebrity champion of the environment is operating on severe jet lag, two hours’ sleep and an ever-heightening world-weariness. But he fires off epithets, facts and acerbic quips with a vigour that’s as implausible as the ageless glow of his skin.

“Humans value growth; that’s like cancer cells,” Suzuki, 80, says. We’re overpopulated and live in a finite world but are deluding ourselves that the opposite is true, he says.

“We’re an invasive species,” he adds, forecasting that a Spanish-flu-like epidemic might cut back swelling populations in the near future.

The developing world is a target of his ire for its booming populations, a position he admits is controversial. “We don’t talk about how these populations are growing too fast because we’re told it’s racist to say that.”

Touching down in Hong Kong to deliver a rallying speech at City University that kicks off its inaugural lecture series on sustainability, Suzuki does not mince words on stage nor during interviews, in which he refuses to suffer optimists.

He has a reputation as a fearsome figurehead of Canada’s environmentalists, having, on occasion, responded to detractors in expletives, and proved a slightly scary interviewee. At times, he emanates a grandfatherly warmth; at others, a wry impatience that veers on the grouchy.

“Yeah, humans are just so smart, we’re just so, so smart,” he says, rolling his eyes at the suggestion that humanity might save itself through its own inventiveness. This quality, though marvellous in some respects, is what enabled us to develop in ways that are unsustainable.

“We have the internet, that’ll fix things,” he says sarcastically. He finds effusive optimism of this sort not only deeply distasteful, but also dangerous, as it vindicates inaction in the face of creeping adversity.

That man-made solutions to climate change’s increasingly disastrous impact, by way of geoengineering, or conquering new planets as recently proposed by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, might be just around the corner, are beliefs he calls delusional. The answer lies not in new inventions, but in scaling back big time and pushing for others to do the same.

The solution to our problems goes far beyond paltry gestures such as switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, he says, but doesn’t offer any specific suggestions besides a total overhaul of the status quo, and mobilising society to campaign for its rights to clean resources.

“Since I arrived in Hong Kong people keep saying ‘free the market, you gotta free the market’,” Suzuki says, waving his arms flamboyantly. “The market” is a human construct, he adds. It’s not a preternatural force that’s beyond the control of humans – it can be tamed.

Needless to say, Suzuki is no proponent of deregulated capitalism, nor is he hopeful about the future prospects of mankind within the current framework of the global economy. “Corporations don’t give a s*** about us,” he says.

He argues that what’s happened is that we imbue “the market” with an almost transcendental power while relegating the natural world to a position of servitude. This sanctions our plundering of the Earth with ever greater and prospectively more dangerous ingenuity.

On China, he has a nuanced take: “I vowed never to go back because of the air pollution. Now China has invested in green technology because it’s had to – the pollution is killing people. It’s becoming a world leader in green tech.”

On recently elected US President Donald Trump he is far more critical: “We’ve moved from a biocentric point of view to an anthropocentric one. It’s all about me, me, me – and Trump is the cultural expression of that,” he says.

We once respected nature and bowed to its demands. Now we expect it to do our bidding and plunder its resources with an absurd expectation that they are infinite and a grandiose sense of entitlement.

“There’s no limit to what we want,” he says. “You walk down the street and see people in jeans that companies have ripped for them. I think that’s disgusting.”

Suzuki, a Vancouverite and third-generation Japanese-Canadian, rose to prominence as a TV presenter and environmental activist during and after the decades he spent as a research scientist.

His family suffered internment during the second world war, and, in its aftermath, were forced to relocate to the east of the Rocky Mountains after the government sold off their dry-cleaning business.

Suzuki attributes to his parents’ need to scrimp and save his own distaste for the materialist values that flourished after the war.

“My parents taught me not to run after money,” he says.

The fledging scientist earned his PhD in biology from the University of Chicago, and later became professor of a genetics department at the University of British Columbia, specialising in fruit flies.

He went on to host several documentaries, radio and TV shows, among them the internationally popular science programme The Nature of Things, which cemented his place as a household name.

“When I started doing those shows, Canadians were scientifically illiterate,” he recalls. “I had hoped that by helping disseminate information people would get better about making the right decisions.

“I’ve had to alter that belief – now we have the internet and access to so much information, we just read the stuff we want to believe.”

In the late 1970s, during the shooting of The Nature of Things, he interviewed the indigenous people of the Haida Gwaii archipelago on the north coast of British Columbia about protests they were holding against the cutting down of their forest.

These encounters proved life-changing for Suzuki, who has since campaigned tirelessly for the rights of indigenous cultures and has been adopted into one tribe.

“I’ve been welcomed into the eagle tribe – I’m an eagle,” he says. His adoptive tribe sees men and animals as one and the same, an idea Suzuki says is supported by recent research showing that humans and animals share many chromosomes.

He believes they are among the only societies who live sustainably, within their means and with respect for the natural world. He says science now backs many of their conceptions of man’s place in the world as part of an interconnected matrix.

With 55 books under his belt, a foundation in his name, and environmental campaign work spanning decades, Suzuki admits he’s exhausted, angry and prone to moments of despondency.

He has been a particularly active force when it comes to debunking climate deniers and the industry lobby groups that support them. “Companies that put their own profit over the survival of the planet – that’s evil.”

The past year has been a particularly bad one for his ilk. Deadline upon deadline set by climatologists and transnational alliances to offset climate change’s increasingly palpable impact have been flouted.

And what has emerged is an increasingly polarised world, unverifiable information chaos and a climate change denier at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation.

Suzuki remembers the evening of last year’s US elections. A party with his wife and friends in Massachusetts had disbanded early when the results became apparent. “I left that night worried that some of my friends might kill themselves,” he says.

A few weeks later he would find himself reading a particularly dismal report from an environmentalist’s research project that forecast climatological doom in our near future owing to methane being released from the Arctic as the permafrost thaws.

“I couldn’t move for a week after I read that,” he says. “My grandchildren have a very uncertain future.”

A family man with five children – three from his first marriage – he admits that for a proponent of population control his ecological footprint isn’t the most admirable.

“You have one kid, and you think, this is great, let’s have another,” he says. “And grandchildren are even better.”

His daughter, Severn, is like her father. At the age of 12, she travelled to Rio to give a speech at the summit and has since followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a prominent environmental activist. When Suzuki needs to escape he retreats to the Haida Gwaii reservation, where Severn now lives with her husband and two sons.

“My grandchildren keep me from despair,” he says. “My grandchildren are what keep me fighting. Because we’ve got to keep fighting, otherwise – what’s the point?”

Arctic sea ice, Eurasia snow, and extreme winter haze in China

Download (PDF, 773KB)

‘Forest Cities’: The Visionary Plan to Save China From Air Pollution

Stefano Boeri, the architect famous for his plant-covered skyscrapers, has designs to create entire new green settlements in a nation plagued by dirty air

http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/318-66/42061-forest-cities-the-visionary-plan-to-save-china-from-air-pollution

Nanjing Green Towers, promoted by Nanjing Yang Zi State-owned National Investment Group Co., Ltd, will be the first Vertical Forest built in Asia. (photo: Stefano Boeri Architetti)

Nanjing Green Towers, promoted by Nanjing Yang Zi State-owned National Investment Group Co., Ltd, will be the first Vertical Forest built in Asia. (photo: Stefano Boeri Architetti)

hen Stefano Boeri imagines the future of urban China he sees green, and lots of it. Office blocks, homes and hotels decked from top to toe in a verdant blaze of shrubbery and plant life; a breath of fresh air for metropolises that are choking on a toxic diet of fumes and dust.

Last week, the Italian architect, famed for his tree-clad Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) skyscraper complex in Milan, unveiled plans for a similar project in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.

The Chinese equivalent – Boeri’s first in Asia – will be composed of two neighbouring towers coated with 23 species of tree and more than 2,500 cascading shrubs. The structures will reportedly house offices, a 247-room luxury hotel, a museum and even a green architecture school, and are currently under construction, set for completion next year.

But Boeri now has even bolder plans for China: to create entire “forest cities” in a country that has become synonymous with environmental degradation and smog.

“We have been asked to design an entire city where you don’t only have one tall building but you have 100 or 200 buildings of different sizes, all with trees and plants on the facades,” Boeri told the Guardian. “We are working very seriously on designing all the different buildings. I think they will start to build at the end of this year. By 2020 we could imagine having the first forest city in China.”

Boeri described his “vertical forest” concept as the architectural equivalent of a skin graft, a targeted intervention designed to bring new life to a small corner of China’s polluted urban sprawl. His Milan-based practice claimed the buildings would suck 25 tons of carbon dioxide from Nanjing’s air each year and produce about 60 kg of oxygen every day.

“It is positive because the presence of such a large number of plants, trees and shrubs is contributing to the cleaning of the air, contributing to absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen,’ the architect said. “And what is so important is that this large presence of plants is an amazing contribution in terms of absorbing the dust produced by urban traffic.”

Boeri said, though, that it would take more than a pair of tree-covered skyscrapers to solve China’s notorious pollution crisis.

“Two towers in a huge urban environment [such as Nanjing] is so, so small a contribution – but it is an example. We hope that this model of green architecture can be repeated and copied and replicated.”

If the Nanjing project is a skin graft, Boeri’s blueprints for “forest cities” are more like an organ transplant. The Milan-born architect said his idea was to create a series of sustainable mini-cities that could provide a green roadmap for the future of urban China.

The first such settlement will be located in Luizhou, a mid-sized Chinese city of about 1.5 million residents in the mountainous southern province of Guangxi. More improbably, a second project is being conceived around Shijiazhuang, an industrial hub in northern China that is consistently among the country’s 10 most polluted cities.

Compared with the vertical forests, these blueprints represent “something more serious in terms of a contribution to changing the environmental urban conditions in China,” Boeri said.

Boeri, 60, first came to China in 1979. Five years ago he opened an office in Shanghai, where he leads a research program at the city’s Tongji University.

The architect said believed Chinese officials were finally understanding that they needed to embrace a new, more sustainable model of urban planning that involved not “huge megalopolises” but settlements of 100,000 people or fewer that were entirely constructed of “green architecture”.

“What they have done until now is simply to continue to add new peripheral environments to their cities,” he said. “They have created these nightmares – immense metropolitan environments. They have to imagine a new model of city that is not about extending and expanding but a system of small, green cities.”

Boeri described the idea behind his shrub-shrouded structures as simple, not spectacular: “What is spectacular is the nature, the idea of having a building that changes colour with each season. The plants and trees are growing and they are completely changing.”

“We think – and we hope – that this idea of vertical forests can be replicated everywhere. I absolutely have no problem if there are people who are copying or replicating. I hope that what we have done can be useful for other kinds of experiments.”

China orders local meteorological bureaus to stop issuing smog alerts

China is suspending local meteorological bureaus from issuing smog alerts, media reported Wednesday, raising suspicions the government is attempting to suppress information about the country’s air pollution as public anger over the issue grows.

China’s Meteorological Administration notified local bureaus Tuesday to “immediately stop issuing smog alerts”, according to a photo of a notice posted on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo.

Instead, the local departments can issue alerts for “fog” when visibility is less than 10 km, according to the notice.

The notice was issued because local “meterological bureaus and the environmental protection administration often disagree when they issue smog-related information,” a representative from the China Meteorological Administration told the Chinese website The Paper.

“A joint alerting mechanism will be formulated to consult how to and who should issue alerts for smog,” the representative said.

One single department will now be responsible for issuing smog alerts, The Paper reported.

The reports met with stinging criticism from online commentators who have long doubted the credibility of official data on air pollution.

“Before, they cheated us separately, and now, they are going to cheat us together,” one person said on Weibo.

“Even though they are working on a unified alert standard, they should not stop the existing alert system,” another replied.

The Chinese government has a colour-coded system of smog alerts, topping out at red when severe pollution is likely to last more than 72 hours.

The notice sets off a series of emergency measures, ranging from taking cars off the road to closing heavily polluting factories.

Local authorities have long hesitated to issue the notices over fears that they will harm economic performance, even when pollution levels are literally off the charts.

In late 2015, China issued its first ever red alert in response to public anger over the government’s reluctance to take action after a wave of suffocating smog hit the country’s northeast.

In the past, local and national authorities have issued contradictory, confusing alerts, one ordering factories and schools to be closed and one not.

Bad air is a source of enduring public anger in China, which has seen fast economic growth in recent decades but at the cost of widespread environmental problems.

In recent weeks, parents in particular have expressed outrage over the miasma that regularly affect hundreds of millions and has led to high levels of lung cancer, demanding that schools be equipped with air purifiers.

Earlier this month, many took to social media to express their anger about the thick smog that choked Beijing for over a week around the New Year but found their articles quickly deleted, a move that only increased their frustration.

“When people are gagged, the sky will be blue,” said one sarcasm-laced Weibo comment.

High-Speed Train Caked in God Knows What Reveals How Bad China’s Air Has Gotten

Images of a high-speed train that traveled 497 miles between Shanghai and Beijing reveals just how polluted China’s air really is.

http://nextshark.com/high-speed-train-china-airpocalypse/

The photos show that the train has got caked-on grime all over, presumably as a result of the PM2.5 air quality.

The photos show that the train has got caked-on grime all over, presumably as a result of the PM2.5 air quality.

Share Tweet Images of a high-speed train that traveled 497 miles between Shanghai and Beijing reveals just how polluted China’s air really is. train_through_smog The photos show that the train has got caked-on grime all over, presumably as a result of the PM2.5 air quality. train_through_smog2 “This is what our lungs look like as well,” one netizen said of Beijing’s now infamous “airpocalypse,” according to the Shanghaiist.

“This is what our lungs look like as well,” one netizen said of Beijing’s now infamous “airpocalypse,” according to the Shanghaiist.

train_through_smog4

However, more photos below shows China’s train-cleaning crews hard at work keeping the high-speed trains looking nice and pristine for the next group of passengers.

However, more photos below shows China’s train-cleaning crews hard at work keeping the high-speed trains looking nice and pristine for the next group of passengers.

The railway line connecting Beijing and Shanghai was opened to the public in July 2011 by the Chinese ministry of railways, reported the International Business Times.

The fare for the journey ranged from $63 to $279 depending on the speed and seat category. Speeds of China Railway High-speed Harmony bullet trains’ vary from 155 to 217 miles per hour.

China’s Smog Is as Deadly as Smoking, New Research Claims

Current severe smog in northern China is affecting nearly half a billion people

http://time.com/4617295/china-smog-smoking-environment-air-pollution/

Air pollution could be the cause of 1 in 3 deaths in China, new academic research suggests, making everyday life about as deadly as smoking cigarettes in some parts of the country.

According to the South China Morning Post, a recent study of 74 cities analyzed some 3.03 million deaths recorded in 2013, and found that 31.8% of them could be linked to smog.

The study, carried out by researchers at China’s Nanjing University, found that the air was most toxic in the cities of Baoding, Shijiazhuang and Handan, each reporting more than 30,000 deaths in 2013 that could be linked to pollution.

It does not appear that the situation has markedly improved in the years since. Last Friday, Beijing issued a “red alert” warning because of a blanket of thick smog shrouding the capital city and a large swath of northern China, affecting nearly half a billion people. With pollution levels reaching about 500 PM2.5 particles per cubic meter — the WHO ranks safe levels as under 25 — the so-called airpocalypse, has sent tens of thousands fleeing to southern parts of the country, where the air is cleaner.

Hospitals have been crowded with patients suffering respiratory problems, whole highways have been shut down, and hundreds of flights grounded. Classes were also cancelled — although in one case exams were not. Shocking images spread across the Internet showing schoolchildren seated outside wearing jackets and face masks, huddled over desks to take a test in gray, toxic gloom.

The Post reports that the new findings from Nanjing support previous research; the paper says that the International Energy Agency published a report in June claiming that air pollution has trimmed some 25% off life expectancy in China, while a study co-authored by researchers at three renowned universities determined that people in China’s north could lose an average of 5.5 years of life due to smog.

China’s National Energy Administration reportedly said Wednesday that it will enact measures such as limiting high-pollution fuel emissions and launching a satellite carbon-dioxide monitor to mitigate the problem, but many in the country’s vast ultra-industrial cities remain skeptical.

Greenpeace has warned that the economy must urgently be made less dependent on polluting forms of energy and that people living in cold northern climates should be given alternatives to coal, which causes much of the smog.

Shanghai water supply hit by 100-tonne wave of garbage

Ships are suspected of dumping waste upstream on China’s Yangtze river before it floats into a key city reservoir

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/23/shanghai-water-supply-hit-by-100-tonne-wave-of-garbage

Medical waste, broken bottles and household trash are some of the items found in more than 100 tonnes of garbage salvaged near a drinking water reservoir in Shanghai.

The suspected culprits are two ships that have been dumping waste upstream in the Yangtze river. It has then flowed downstream to the reservoir on Shanghai’s Chongming island which is also home to 700,000 people.

The reservoir at the mouth of the river is one of the four main sources of drinking water for the country’s largest city, according to local media.

China has struggled with air, soil and water pollution for years during its economic boom, with officials often protecting industry and silencing citizens that complain. China’s cities are often blanketed in toxic smog, while earlier this year more than 80% of water wells used by farms, factories and rural households was found to be unsafe for drinking because of pollution.

Officials dispatched more than 40 workers to clean up the mess, but the area around the reservoir will take about two weeks to clear, the Shanghai Daily reported. Shanghai’s water authority claims supplies are still safe to drink, but has stopped the flow coming in while it continues testing, the paper said.

Videos circulating on social media showed beaches and wetlands covered in a rainbow of plastic bags.

“There’s enough trash to cover several football fields,” a local resident can be heard saying in one video. Catheter bags and used IV sacks are pulled from the water, and in some places only a sea of trash can be seen, completely obscuring the river water.

“This is so sad, just humanity digging its own grave,” one commenter on Twitter-like Sina Weibo said.

Needles and medical tubes were found in the trash, which has been washing ashore since 5 November. Despite cleanup efforts, a new wave of garbage inundated the island again this week.

Earlier this year more than 500 students developed nosebleeds, rashes and illnesses, some as severe as leukaemia, in what local media linked to illegal toxic dumping by chemical factories.

Although parents complained for months, local officials ignored their claims and disputed any connection despite levels of chlorobenzene, a highly toxic solvent that causes damage to the liver, kidney and nervous system, nearly 100,000 times above the safe limit.

The country’s air pollution has been shown to contribute to more than 1 million deaths a year, linked to about a third of deaths in China’s major cities.

World’s Worst Air Has Mongolians Seeing Red, Planning Action

If you think air pollution in China has been bad, just look at Mongolia.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-22/world-s-worst-air-has-mongolians-seeing-red-planning-protest

Levels of particulate matter in the air have risen to almost 80 times the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organization — and five times worse than Beijing during the past week’s bout with the worst smog of the year.

Mongolian power plants working overtime during the frigid winter belch plumes of soot into the atmosphere, while acrid smoke from coal fires shrouds the shantytowns of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in a brown fog. Angry residents planned a protest, organized on social media, on Dec. 26.

The level of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, in the air as measured hourly peaked at 1,985 micrograms a cubic meter on Dec. 16 in the capital’s Bayankhoshuu district, according to data posted by government website agaar.mn. The daily average settled at 1,071 micrograms that day.

The World Health Organization recommends PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25 micrograms over 24 hours.

800x-1

In Beijing, the year’s worst bout of noxious smog prompted officials to issue the year’s first red alert and order 1,200 factories to close or cut output. Earlier this week, PM2.5 levels exceeded 400 in the capital, and Chinese officials on Tuesday canceled 351 flight departures because of limited visibility. The highest daily average in the past week, on Wednesday, registered 378. Worse, the PM2.5 reading in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter earlier this week, according to the China National Environment Monitoring Center.

Mongolia’s contracting economic growth and a widening budget gap have left authorities few resources to fight the dangerous smog.

Tariff Eliminated

After first cutting the nighttime electricity tariff by 50 percent to encourage residents to heat their homes with electric heaters instead of raw coal or other flammable material that is often toxic, Prime Minister Erdenebat Jargaltulga announced Friday that the tariff would eliminated entirely as of Jan. 1. Longer term, he proposed building apartments to replace makeshift housing using a loan from China, doing more to encourage electric heating, and reducing poverty to slow migration to the capital, according to a government statement.

The conversion of ger districts, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes including tents, into apartment complexes has so far been stymied by an economic crisis that has pushed the government to seek economic lifelines from partners including the International Monetary Fund and China.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu announced that a 50-bed wing of Ulaanbaatar’s military hospital will open up for children with pneumonia, as city hospitals were filled to capacity, according to a statement on the government’s website.

Public Anger

Public anger over the government’s handling of pollution has been growing on social media, where residents share pictures of the smog, encourage methods of protection and call on the government to do more to protect citizens. The latest trend Friday had Mongolians changing their profile pictures on Facebook to show themselves wearing air pollution masks.

The air pollution protest next week was being organized for Sukhbaatar Square, the capital’s central plaza. A crowdfunding campaign to purchase 100 air purifiers for hospitals and schools raised more than $1,400 in five days.

“The hospital I visited today did not have any air purifiers, even though 40 mothers were scattered along a narrow corridor, each with a sick baby in their arms,” Onon Bayasgalan, an environmentalist who organized the crowdfunding campaign, said Thursday. “They sleep on fold out cots in the corridors, as the hospital rooms are full of pneumonia cases.’’

Impending Crisis

Earlier this month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned of an impending crisis if the smoke levels are not reduced, calling children under 5 and those still in the womb the most vulnerable.

“Children are projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life,” the UNICEF report said, warning of the rising economic costs of these diseases unless “major new measures” are urgently enacted. “The alarming levels of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar during the long winter cannot be neglected any longer, as their short- and long-term negative health impact has been demonstrated, especially for children.’’

A 2013 study by Canada’s Simon Fraser University concluded that 10 percent of deaths in Ulaanbaatar were related to complications from air pollution.

“Most of my colleagues’ children are hospitalized or at home struggling with respiratory problems,’’ Lhagva Erdene, news director at Mongol TV station, said in an e-mail. “We feel helpless and frustrated for the inaction of our government.’’

Neither the ministers for foreign affairs nor the environment replied to requests for comment.

Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal, who heads the Business Council of Mongolia in the capital, said he and his family try to stay indoors as much as possible and spend weekends outside the city.

“There have been shifting policies, and that is frustrating,” he said. “There needs to be consistent policy and stability so businesses can find solutions to this problem.’’

Friday’s PM2.5 levels in northern Ulaanbaatar peaked at 932 at noon, while the monthly average for December so far was 518. Meanwhile in Beijing, where the government lifted its pollution warning Thursday, skies were clear and air quality improved.

How scientists cracked the puzzle of Beijing’s wintertime smog

Sulphate levels in Chinese capital’s air similar to those produced by volcanic eruptions

Levels of a pollutant linked to diarrhoea and global cooling in Beijing’s notorious smog can approach those produced by volcanic eruptions, according to a newly published international study.

Researchers from Germany, the United States and China recorded extremely high concentrations of sulphate on the Tsinghua University campus in January 2013 during a joint study of air pollution in the Chinese capital.

Sulphate is a salt of sulphuric acid that, in nature, is usually formed in the atmosphere after a volcanic eruption.

The sulphate concentration on the roof of one Tsinghua building hit 300 micrograms per cubic metre of air, comparable to the fallout from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which produced an average, near-surface concentration of 400 micrograms over Scandinavia.

That might explain why some people experience diarrhoea, a typical effect of sulphate poisoning, on smoggy days, alongside other symptoms linked to air pollution.

But the high levels of sulphate in the smog that plagues Beijing each winter puzzled the researchers.

In nature, sulphate is formed when massive amounts of sulphur are thrust high into the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption and transformed by sunlight in a process known as photochemistry.

“No theory could explain why it happened during a cold, dim winter in Beijing with little photochemistry going on,” said Dr Su Hang, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and one of the scientists involved in the study.

In a paper published in the journal Sciences Advances on Wednesday, Su and his colleagues pinpointed a culprit: nitrogen oxides – a family of pollutants mainly created by industrial and vehicular emissions.

Nitrogen oxides, including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, could bind with water vapour and create many floating liquid droplets that would not freeze in sub-zero temperatures. The airborne droplets then served as a chemical reactor, absorbing sulphur dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into sulphate. The more sulphate produced, the bigger the droplet and the faster the chemical reaction.

“It was like a chain reaction,” Su said. “Once started, it would not stop.”

That made the smog in Beijing different from the photochemical smog, driven by sunlight, that troubled Los Angeles in the 1970s.

The researchers said the amount of man-made air pollutants in China’s lower atmosphere had reached a level unprecedented in human history and that was triggering chemical reactions previously thought impossible.

In Beijing, Su said, smog could develop rapidly at night, and residents sometimes woke up to find the air outside “as thick as soup”.

Sulphate is also believed to play an important role in planet cooling, with scientists linking the massive spread of sulphate in the atmosphere after volcanic eruptions to numerous episodes of global cooling throughout history due to the chemical’s ability to reflect sunlight back into outer space almost as effectively as a mirror.

Whether the smog in China could help slow global warming required further investigation, the researchers said.

The researchers urged the authorities to treat nitrogen oxides as a major enemy in the battle against smog – with a focus on cutting industrial and vehicular emissions – because the chemistry at work in haze not only produced sulphate but also lots of nitrate, which could cause oxygen levels in the blood to drop, causing dizziness, headaches or even death.

“Reducing the nitrogen oxides can shoot several birds with one stone,” Su said.

Source URL: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/2055981/how-scientists-cracked-puzzle-beijings-wintertime-smog

What exactly is causing China’s toxic smog?

As thick, choking smog continues to envelop large parts of the country, long-suffering Chinese residents have raised questions

As thick, choking, toxic smog continues to envelop large parts of China, long-suffering Chinese residents have raised the question of what exactly is causing the terrible air pollution.

Have the country’s eco-friendly wind farms slowed air circulation, making it harder for smog to disperse, and has switching to natural gas contributed more harmful particles to the air than the use of coal?

These are the burning questions that Chinese social media users have raised over the past few days as residents across northern China endure the smog that is laying siege to a seventh of the country.

Some critics believe the government’s measures taken to counter air pollution have instead worsened its problems, but scientists say this is not the case.

The burning of coal is the biggest factor contributing to northern China’s smoggy conditions, according to Professor Chai Fahe, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

china-smog-01

china-smog-02

Speaking at a press meeting organised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Tuesday, Chai said emissions from burning coal in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei – the most developed regions in northern China – were five times the national average.

The situation would worsen in winter, as many urban communities and rural families in those regions also relied on coal for heating, he said.

To reduce the country’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, the government set up large-scale wind farms.

Most of the wind turbines are located in grasslands in Hebei and Inner Mongolia to the north of Beijing, and sit across a major stream of cold air from Siberia.

A recent study found that near-surface wind speeds in Beijing had declined significantly, from 3.7 metres per second in the 1970s to just 3 metres per second presently.

Xu Dexiang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, said wind farms could indeed affect the movement of ground air, according to studies conducted both in China and abroad.

Significantly reduced wind speeds had been recorded in areas within 100km from the wind farms, Xu said.

But the impact to Beijing – which is more than 400km south of Inner Mongolia and 200km from Zhangjiakou in Hebei where most of the farms are located – would not be “obvious”, he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

china-smog-03

Xu also said a man-made forest created to reduce dust storms in northern China should not take the blame for the region’s worsening smog.

Such low-lying foliage would not slow down the movement of cold air, which travels at a height of more than 1.5km above ground, he said.

Critics have also raised the possibility that the worsening smog is due to Beijing’s switching winter heating sources from coal to natural gas.

Beijing has in recent years undertaken 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.

china-smog-04

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.

Wang Shuxiao, an environmental science professor with Tsinghua University, said the public should be more patient with the government’s anti-pollution measures.

China could counter its smog problem only if the whole of society worked together to reduce the emission of air pollutants, Wang said.
________________________________________
Source URL: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2056366/what-exactly-causing-chinas-toxic-smog