January 2013 Archives
From India Ink at the NYT:
But in New Delhi on Thursday, air pollution levels far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action. It is not the first time pollution in India’s capital has outpaced that in China.
The level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, was over 400 micrograms per cubic meter in various neighborhoods in and around Delhi Thursday, according to a real-time air quality monitor. That compared to Beijing’s most-recent air quality reading of 172 micrograms per cubic meter. (The “Air Quality online” link to the left of the Delhi website gives you real-time monitoring of Delhi’s pollution levels.)
At the University of Delhi’s northern campus at 12:30 p.m., the reading for PM 2.5 was 402 micrograms per cubic meter; in the eastern suburb of Noida it was 411; at the Indira Gandhi International airport it was 421.
Having spent winters in Delhi, I can attest to the intensity of the air pollution. Part of the problem, like in other large cities, relates to winter meteorology; another significant component is the location of industry and power production in close proximity to urban population centers.
I’m working on culling the data from the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences air pollution monitors; check back soon.
The Atlantic has an amazing collection of photographs of Beijing’s sky during these last few weeks of intense PM pollution. Particularly striking are the before-and-after shots, which on their site allow you to fade between polluted and less polluted days. One is adapted below, but check them all out.
Since the beginning of this year, the levels of air pollution in Beijing have been dangerously high, with thick clouds of smog chasing people indoors, disrupting air travel, and affecting the health of millions. The past two weeks have been especially bad — at one point the pollution level measured 40 times recommended safety levels. Authorities are taking short-term measures to combat the current crisis, shutting down some factories and limiting government auto usage. However, long-term solutions seem distant, as China’s use of coal continues to rise, and the government remains slow to acknowledge and address the problems.
The focus, of course, has been on Beijing, but astute observers note that it is hardly the most polluted city in the country. As a result of the widespread pollution - which has been getting remarkable coverage in the mainstream media - Chinese activists, educators, and policymakers are speaking out.
Professor Qu Geping, China’s first environmental protection chief, in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post:
“I would not call the past 40 years’ efforts of environmental protection a total failure,” he said. “But I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth … and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.”
After three decades of worsening industrial pollution resulting from rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, China has accumulated huge environmental debts that will have to be paid back, Qu said.
He said recently he regretted that some of the very forward-looking strategies - emphasising a more balanced and co-ordinated approach to development and conservation, that were worked out as early as 1983 - were never put into serious practice when China was still at an early stage of industrialisation.
Pan Shiyi, “one of China’s highest profile antipollution warriors” and a real estate mogul, asked Chinese bloggers and social media users to vote on whether or not China should enact national clean air legislation. According to the WSJ’s China Real Time Report,
In less than 10 hours of voting, nearly 32,000 microbloggers have said they agree with real estate mogul Pan Shiyi’s call for China to implement a clean air law. Fewer than 250 said they were opposed, while just over 120 said they weren’t sure.
As of a few minutes ago, 46,353 people had participated in the poll. A drop in the ocean, but a start.
Finally, according to the Times, the Beijing government is taking steps to curb emissions in the capital. The state run news agency reports that 180,000 old vehicles will be removed from the road; the heating systems of 44,000 old, single story homes and coal-burning boilers downtown will be replaced with clean energy; and 40% of Beijing will be forest covered in the next five years.
The city also plans to reduce coal consumption by 1.4 million tonnes and volatile organic compounds emissions by 8,000 tonnes, in addition to closing some 450 heavily polluting plants, according to municipal authorities.
Reasonable measures, but not ones that will occur rapidly. And, as mentioned, this doesn’t help much with the other, equally or more heavily polluted cities throughout the country.
From EIA’s interesting today in energy series:
Figure based on available EIA data
Coal consumption in China grew more than 9% in 2011, continuing its upward trend for the 12th consecutive year, according to newly released international data. China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87% of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82%). China now accounts for 47% of global coal consumption—almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.
Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200% increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9% per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4% and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1%.
A good, compelling piece from David Roberts, who appeals to a fundamental moral need for climate action:
The U.S. must act because all people have a moral obligation to act. We have no guarantee that if we act, others will act; we have no guarantee that if everyone acts, it will be enough. But inaction is not a choice. If the danger were an invading army from another planet or a raging global pandemic, we wouldn’t be having these arguments. The need for everyone to act would be obvious. Quibbles over who acts first, or who benefits most from the planet not being invaded, or how to avoid spending “too much” to avoid being annihilated would rightly be seen as verging on sociopathic. Everyone would be eager to act, despite having no certainty of success, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.
That’s the root of it: The results of inaction are morally unacceptable. They are also economically unacceptable, worse than virtually anything we might inflict on ourselves through too-vigorous pursuit of clean energy, regenerative agriculture, reforestation, resource-efficient land use, and resilient infrastructure. But ultimately it is a moral argument. We know we are on track for unthinkable human suffering and we know how to avoid it. Even if we can’t make a dime by saving millions of future children in Africa and Asia, we ought to save them. Even if we’re not certain of our success, we have to try. It’s a matter of human decency.
There was a time, not that long ago, when America took pride in leading the world against such dangers. Where is that pride now?
New Scientist has released a web app that asks you to think about climate change in a more selfish manner — for yourself or your community. It loads a world map and you can click where you live and get a quick glimpse of how temperatures have changed — for you.
The graphs and maps all show changes relative to average temperatures for the three decades from 1951 to 1980, the earliest period for which there was sufficiently good coverage for comparison. This gives a consistent view of climate change across the globe. To put these numbers in context, the NASA team estimates that the global average temperature for the 1951-1980 baseline period was about 14 �C.
The analysis uses land-based temperature measurements from some 6000 monitoring stations in the Global Historical Climatology Network, plus records from Antarctic stations recorded by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Temperatures at the ocean surface come from a measurements made by ships from 1880 to 1981, plus satellite measurements from 1982 onwards.
It’s a neat, somewhat egocentric approach. I’m not sure if it really engages a broad audience — but it points towards the kinds of interactivity that may be able to reach skeptical members of the public.
Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott at The Guardian:
In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”
The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”
He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies.
“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”
David Roberts, writing at Grist:
If we want a reasonable hope of hitting our 2 degree target, we have to leave about 80 percent of the known fossil fuels in the ground.
That is indeed terrifying math, but it may become slightly less so as it becomes more specific and concrete. (It is always helpful to break a large task into component parts.) Toward that end, today saw some fascinating new work from the research consultancy Ecofys. Commissioned by Greenpeace, it attempts to rank the most dangerous fossil-fuel projects currently being planned.
The metric is simple: how many additional tons of CO2 the project will emit by 2020. (See the report for more on methodology.) Here’s how they rank:
China’s Western provinces / Coal mining expansion / 1,400
Australia / Coal export expansion / 760
Arctic / Drilling for oil and gas / 520
Indonesia / Coal export expansion / 460
United States / Coal export expansion / 420
Canada / Tar sands oil / 420
Iraq / Oil drilling / 420
Gulf of Mexico / Deepwater oil drilling / 350
Brazil / Deepwater oil drilling (pre-salt) / 330
Kazakhstan / Oil drilling / 290
United States / Shale gas / 280
Africa / Gas drilling / 260
Caspian Sea / Gas drilling / 240
Venezuela / Tar sands oil / 190
A simple pie chart here is useful — of the 14 projects, the majority of the problem involves coal, though others aren’t far behind. Note that the the compression here is a bit tricky — coal includes export expansion, for instance. Nonetheless, the point stands — our dirtiest fuel, from a climate and health perspective, appears to be on a trajectory to create more substantial problems for the global environment.
President Obama, during his second inaugural address (emphasis added):
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet…”
My advisor, writing at CNN:
About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.
The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.
This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.
This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting
The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.
So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.
Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.
…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.
Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.
A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.
As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.
Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.
Smog is a common part of life across much of eastern China; however the past week has seen extremely high air pollution counts, some exceeding 750 micrograms per cubic meter of particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. In the U.S., the EPA classifies any PM2.5 concentration above 100 as “unsafe,” as these tiny particles are able to penetrate deep into airways causing many health risks. This image of eastern China was taken on January 13, 2013 by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Clouds can be seen as bright white areas, whereas the smog and other pollutants appear as a dull gray blanket over the region.
Dashiell Bennett, at The Atlantic Wire:
Chinese officials have shut down factories and ordered cars off the roads to try and save their capital city after spending three straight days under a cloud of toxic smog. Visibility has been as low as 100 yards in some parts of the city, as an increase in winter coal burning, combined with low wind conditions pushed the nation’s already crushing pollution problems to dangerous levels.
To put the current crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level of airborne particulates to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). On Saturday, readings in Beijing reached 993 ug/m3. The head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said “The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday.”
James Fallows at the Atlantic, highlighting excerpts from an English-language version of an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper:
It’s worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports — calling it “fog,” saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:
“The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods…
“The government cannot always think about how to intervene to ‘guide public opinion.’ It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.
“The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed.”
Additional interesting coverage at Live From Beijing, with reasonable explanations of what all the numbers mean.
Finally, a set of photos at WSJ’s China Real Time Report and a summary of the Chinese media response to the ongoing “airpocalypse.”
From the NYT:
The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)
Pollution levels in Beijing had been creeping up for days, and readings were regularly surging above 300 by midweek. The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday. The next day, people working in office towers in downtown Beijing found it impossible to make out skyscrapers just a few blocks away. Some city residents scoured stores in search of masks and air filters.
Revisiting the old, real-time graph I created from the Twitter data:
The magnitude of the pollution is somewhat hard to comprehend. We often see levels as high as these peaks in unventilated, indoor spaces where people cook using solid fuels (like wood, grass, or dung). To imagine concentrations like that at ambient levels is terrifying from a public health perspective. Health data from Beijing in the coming weeks should back this up — if it is made accessible. Indicates a clear need for some sort of action to preserve population level health, especially amongst the most vulnerable.
I heard about this via kottke.org and found it pretty shocking. Most of the response on the internet has been somewhat bimodal, with positions of meh and dismay.
Grist offers a somewhat more balanced response.
…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.
Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.
There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.
While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.
Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.
I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.