Posts tagged “airpollution”

The Return of London's Fog

London’s fogs may be about to make a comeback. Christine Corton, in the NYT:

In January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.

What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.

I just experienced a particular, particulate version of this hell first-hand in Delhi. For the last few days of my trip, a dense, thick haze - clearly not an innocuous fog - permeated the city and surrounding environs. On one trip back to our flat, all of my fellow taxi passengers complained of burning eyes and sore throats.

The closest PM monitor during that drive back — actually quite far from us — read over 250 �g/m3. That’s around 10x higher than a ‘bad’ day in the US. Moreover, we guessed that the levels we were experiencing were closer to 350 �g/m3. As a point of reference, the maximum mean hourly PM2.5 concentration in London since 2008 was approximately 30 �g/m3.

Corton points to a behavioral component to the historic London Fog episodes — a parallel I find particularly interesting:

There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built.

It took a disaster to force London to change direction. In 1952, a “great killer fog” lasted five days and killed an estimated 4,000 people. In a Britain trying to turn a corner after the death and destruction of the Blitz, this was unacceptable. A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, forcing Londoners to burn smokeless fuel or switch to gas or electricity, power sources that had become much cheaper as these industries expanded.

Let’s hope that policy levers and momentum — not a disaster — can help transition away from solid fuels in India and beyond.

Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from coclimate.com

Nicola Twilley, writing at ediblegeography.com:

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.


1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

British Path�'s films on smog and air pollution

From Variety:

British Path�, the U.K. newsreel archive company, has uploaded its entire 100-year collection of 85,000 historic films in high resolution to YouTube.

The collection, which spans 1896 to 1976, comprises some 3,500 hours of historical footage of major events, notable figures, fashion, travel, sports and culture. It includes extensive film from both World War I and World War II.

Naturally, I looked for some videos about smog, air pollution, and the environment. The Archive doesn’t disappoint. There are pieces called “The Smog Menace”, “Smog Detector”, and a documentary called “Guilty Chimneys” (part 1 + 2, part 3).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the archive beyond smog and air pollution. Pretty cool.

Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Some more graphs of Beijing's Air Pollution

A bunch of folks across the internet have been doing some great stuff with the air quality data coming out of China via official channels and the US Embassy twitter feeds. My advisor asked for some graphs of available data. They are posted below (all were created in R using ggplot2). If time ever permits, I’ll post some interactive visualizations.

Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution

Pillarisetti A, Holstius D, Johnson M, Allen T, Canuz E, Charron D, Pennise D, Seto E, Smith KR. Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution . American Association for Aerosol Research, 32nd Annual Conference. Portland, Oregon: October 2, 2013.

What determines the adoption and continued use of advanced clean cookstoves?

Jack D, Pillarisetti A, Vaswani M, Balakrishnan K, Bates MN, Das M, Kinney P, Mukhopadhyay R, Smith KR, Arora NK. What determines the adoption and continued use of advanced clean cookstoves? ISEE/ISES/ISIAQ Joint Conference 2013. Basel, Switzerland: August 20, 2013.

Rim Fire images from NASA & the KPCC Fire Tracker

Devastating. KPCC has an interesting, interactive tool for monitoring California’s wildfires. A bit is embedded below, but the whole thing is worth a look.

NASA’s posted a number of photos of the fire from space. A smattering are embedded below.

In some of the photos, you can see the plume from the Rim Fire and the plume from the American Fire in Tahoe National Forest.

Reno’s been adversely affected by the plume from the Rim Fire, reporting unhealthy on their AQI (can’t find any numbers, at the moment); NASA projects that the plume is impacting AQ in 4 states.

Good luck to the firefighters and rangers working to control the blaze. Our thoughts are with them and others in the surrounding communities.

China to spend $277 billion to curb air pollution

Reuters, reporting on statements by Chinese state-run media:

China plans to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to combat air pollution over the next five years, state media said on Thursday, underscoring the new government’s concerns about addressing a key source of social discontent.

The money is to be spent primarily in regions that have heavy air pollution and high levels of PM 2.5, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted Wang Jinnan, vice-president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning as saying. Wang helped draft the plan.

Thomas Prior's Insane Photos from Fireworks in Tultepec, Mexico & El Torito de Antigua

Kottke linked to Thomas Prior’s collection of celebrations laden with fireworks in Mexico. Madness.

The original article at Wired tells us a bit more:

The annual nine-day festival attracts more than 100,000 people to bathe in the glow of pyrotechnicians’ expert displays. The main event is the Pamplonada — a seven-hour running of the (wooden) bulls in which more than 200 timber-framed toros of fire roll through the streets with up to 4,000 fireworks on each in perpetual explosion.

Tultepec is the center of the country’s firework industry, accounting for half of all fireworks made in Mexico. Approximately 30,000 of the 120,000 Tultepec townsfolk work in the pyrotechnics industry building frames, supplying parts and distributing goods. Two thousand work daily in the 300 registered workshops manufacturing fireworks.

The National Pyrotechnic Festival takes place in honor of Saint John of God, the patron saint of hospitals, the sick, nurses, firefighters and alcoholics — quite fitting given the occasion’s flaming revelry and danger.

Those photos reminded me of some revelry I encountered in Guatemala. Witness El Torito de Antigua:

The video actually captures it pretty well. The nonchalance of the fellow who’s got explosives strapped to a wooden bull he’s wearing over his head. The nervous, bemused excitement and terror of the crowd. The madness of the entire endeavor. Not quite the same level insanity as in Tultepec… but of a similar. Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be pyrotechnics.

We also monitored air pollution in the plaza (of course) during the march of El Torito.

Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China

As Kirk pointed out in an email this morning, the NYT missed half of the problem. He wrote:

Remarkable narrow vision to fail even to mention that household air pollution has about an equal impact in the country. Even though the GBD study shows both on the same graphs, journalists and policy makers see one, but not the other. These is also an estimated 0.2 million overlap, what we call secondhand cookfire smoke, which is the portion of outdoor air due to cooking fuels in the country. If you account that to household air pollution, than the total impact of household air pollution is greater than that from outdoor air pollution due to all other sources combined (1.2 million premature deaths compared to 1.0 million).

Our work has been showing — in India and in China — that outdoor air pollution isn’t just an urban problem; it is simply measured most commonly (and thus identified most easily) in urban areas. We’re working to quantify that contribution and to make the case that cleaning up households can help clean up ambient air — in urban and rural areas.

A robust, low-cost particle monitor and data platform for evaluation of cookstove performance

Johnson M, Pillarisetti A, Allen T, Charron D, Pennise D, Smith KR. A robust, low-cost particle monitor and data platform for evaluation of cookstove performance. EPA Air Sensors 2013: Data Quality & Applications. Research Triange Park, NC: March 18-19, 2013.

Air Quality in Delhi

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.

In Focus: China's Toxic Sky

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.

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

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.

Why we shouldn't compare Beijing in 2013 to mid-20th century London, Pittsburgh, and Chicago

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.

NASA/NOAA: Smog in China, as seen from space

smog_space.jpg

NOAA:

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.

The great Beijing 'fog': dispatches from around the web

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.”

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