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The Cyclic Nature of “Crazy Bad” Air Pollution and Fuel Transitions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photo of Beijing Skyline (2005) by Bobak

China has become an icon for global air quality discussions – with its infamously horrible airpocolypses leading to widely publicized health impacts on the local population including widespread headaches, respiratory distress, and anxiety.

On January 14, 2014 one such event led to air quality that was so “crazy bad,” measurement tools housed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing couldn’t keep up. That night, Beijing’s air quality index climbed to more than 500 for concentrations of particulate matter (PM), more than 20 times higher than World Health Organization recommended limits. One year before, levels had topped out at 755 in the city. All told, more than 95% (71 of 74“>) of Chinese cities currently fail to meet state air quality standards.

But, air pollution is not a China-specific issue. Not by a long shot.

In the World Atlas of Atmospheric Pollution (WAAP), an international group of scientists provide an overview of how air pollution impacts the world’s growing population. And, in turn, how the growing population is poised to impact air pollution. Edited by Dr. Ranjeet S Sokhi from the Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research (CAIR) at the University of Hertfordshire, the book presents a solid primer for readers who want to become more familiar with how air pollution is formed, transformed, and transported as well as gain an understanding of how air pollution effects the environment and public health.

The book also highlights the fact that air pollution (and its negative impact of human health) has been around for thousands of years – indeed, Professor Peter Brimblecombe‘s chapter on the history of air pollution takes the reader through space and time, dating back to 460 BC. In one excerpt, the now retired Professor Brimblecombe reminisces back to ancient Roman times, stating that:

“In Imperial Rome, Nero’s tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), was often in poor health and suffered from asthma, so his doctor ordered him to leave Rome; he found that no sooner has he escaped its oppressive atmosphere and awful culinary stenches, his health improved.”

He also discusses how “increasing energy demands and the adoption of new fuels (sequentially: coal, petrol, diesel) have caused air pollution problems…[that] has often been visible as smoke, photochemical smog and diesel smoke” and posits that the cyclic nature of air pollution – how it will increase for a period of time and then a new fuel source will replace existing polluters (e.g. coal smoke replaced by gasoline-diesel pollution) – can be seen around the world.

According to Professor Brimblecombe, while the patterns of pollution and fuel transition can be quite similar in different locations, the pace at which these transitions occur can be quite different between cases. For example, in Britain, fuel switching from wood–>coal–>oil–>gas took in the ballpark of 800 years. In China, the same transition appears to be taking about 50 years (see the WAAP, Chapter 1).

In the case of the United Kingdom, the Great Smog of 1952 spurred action that resulted in legislation just four years later. The Clean Air Act of 1956 designated “smoke control areas” where only smokeless fuels could be used in some parts of population centers in order to reduce local air pollution.

Today, China’s air quality struggles stem primarily from the pollution released by coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, and transportation. As a result of this, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has declared a “war on [air] pollution,” promising that the government would fight against the crippling air pollution that is coming hand in hand with the country’s rapid growth and increasing levels of urbanization. Last week, he announced a new pollution action plan that will primarily focus on the heavy industrial heartlands of Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin as well as the commercial and manufacturing centers around Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. In these areas, industrial capacity and overall coal consumption will be cut in order to drop the amount of pollution that is dumped into the air.

Until these emissions are reduced, the resulting air pollution can cause a wide range of effects on both human health and the environment. In the latter, this type of pollution can lead to decreased crop production, soil acidification, and the corrosion of a wide array of materials (see the WAAP, Chapter 6). In the case of human health, air pollutants including ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter pose significant threats, in part due to their widespread existence. And, because air pollution isn’t stationary, these impacts will spread beyond Chinese borders (see the WAAP, Chapter 1).

Because of the human health threats associated with air pollution, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a series of Air Quality Guidelines that provide guidance for recommended pollution concentration and exposure levels. Many nations have already adopted clean air regulations (e.g. the United States with its Clean Air Act and the European Union with its Air Quality Framework Directive). And, according to the WAAP (see Chapter 6, pg. 89), air quality has been improving in urban areas in Europe and North American. But, other regions – including large swaths of Asia – still struggle.

Photo Credit: Photo of Beijing in 2005 after two days of rain and during a smoggy day by Bobak via Wikimedia Commons.

Related posts:

1. Should Public Transportation Be Free In Cities With Bad Air Quality? - March 14, 2014

2. Air Pollution Linked to Significant Decrease in Life Expectancy - July 10, 2013

 

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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