Blanket Of Smog In Chinese City Renews Coal Debate

Oct 25, 2013

Cool winds are bringing relief to nearly 10 million residents of the northern Chinese city of Harbin, where thick smog caused schools, airports and businesses to shutter their doors earlier this week. Residents were ordered to remain indoors. At the pollution’s worst, visibility was only 65 feet.

The smog coincided with the first day residents fired up their heating systems in a city known for its cold temperatures and ice festivals.

The city’s dependence on coal has created ongoing problems: in 2010 Harbin spent over $1 million to retrofit some residential buildings with new windows, roofing and insulation. But those measures were inadequate to hold the pollution at bay.

China is responsible for half the world’s consumption of coal.

Scientist Russell Dickerson joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the issue.


  • Russell Dickerson, professor in the department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Maryland.
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Imagine if the entire Chicago land area was covered in a smog so thick you couldn't see more than 65 feet ahead of you for days. Well, that is what happened this week in the Chinese city of Harbin, which is actually about the same size as Chicago's metro area. The smog has largely dissipated, but it was so bad that schools, airports and businesses had to be shut down and residents were ordered to stay indoors. Russ Dickerson is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Maryland. He's with us now from NPR in Washington. Professor, welcome.

RUSSELL DICKERSON: Good afternoon. Thanks for inviting me.

HOBSON: Well, what caused this pollution in China, first of all?

DICKERSON: Well, the severe pollution that they're having in Harbin, or have had over the past few days, is caused primarily by burning coal. So for home heating, as well as for electricity, they burn coal. And a lot of the coal-fired power plants and boilers are right in the city, including in residential areas. When coal is burned without the appropriate scrubbers to remove sulfur and nitrogen compounds and trace metals, it can create a terrible smog.

HOBSON: Especially when there's no wind, as was the case this week.

DICKERSON: That's right. The meteorology and chemistry have to conspire to generate such a severe smog episode.

HOBSON: Well, how do you think that the government responded? Did they do a good job by having people stay indoors and shutting down a lot of the schools and businesses?

DICKERSON: In the short run, that's all they can do. People need heat, they need electricity. The long term solution is to put scrubbers on the boilers, on anything that burns coal, or move them outside of the heavily populated areas.

HOBSON: One of the questions that we had here is whether Americans are in some small way to blame for what's going on because, of course, there's so much industry in China, the growth has been rapid, and much of that industry is to make things that we buy over here.

DICKERSON: Well, there's an element of truth to that. We've exported a lot of our manufacturing to China. And so a lot of the coal that would've been combusted in the United States to build things is now being combusted in China. On the other hand, the technology to control emissions from coal-fired power plants and boilers is well-established. And many of the power plants and other facilities in China do have scrubbers on them, just not enough yet.

HOBSON: Of course, this is not the first time that something like this has happened, especially with coal. I'm reminded of the great smog of 1952 in London. People started using their coal-burning fireplaces in December of 1952. And as a report at the time said there was nary a breeze to be found. So the city was blackened for days. Here's a news clip from back then.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Over 200 million tons of coal are consumed in this country every year. We don't know exactly what it is in the smoke pollution that does it, but we do know the results. Heaven help the doctor on a night like this.

HOBSON: How does what just happened in Harbin compare with what happened in London in 1952?

DICKERSON: Well, that was beautiful. I've never heard that before. I wish I could talk that way.


DICKERSON: It's actually very similar. It's a perfect cognate. In the 1950s in London, they heated their homes with coal. And that coal was combusted without any controls on the emissions. Coal is typically, you know, one to three percent sulfur by weight. So you can actually see yellow stripes in many kinds of coal. And when coal burns, sulfur dioxide is emitted. And sulfur dioxide is a lung irritant and a toxic pollutant in itself. But when it combines with fog, which is pretty common in London in the winter, even today, it forms little droplets, little particles of sulfuric acid. These tiny sulfuric acid particles are extremely active biologically.

And during that episode in December 1952, there were recorded something like 2,000 or 3,000 excess deaths. People continued to be sick and then die several days after the smog episode ended. The same problem is occurring in many Chinese cities today. They use coal for home heating, for cooking and for electricity generation. And if you burn coal without controlling the emissions, the consequences are dire.

HOBSON: Well, why weren't the lessons learned from London, because after the London smog in 1952, they banned urban coal-burning fireplaces?

DICKERSON: They certainly did. And the air quality in London today is pretty good. It's a matter of money and the rate of growth, I think. It costs a lot of money to add scrubbers to coal-fired power plants. The other issue is an issue of scale. You have to have something to replace it. And the Chinese cities that I've been in and worked in, every little school, small factory, even hospitals in the research site that I was working at, they have a boiler. And that boiler is the same thing that my family had when I was a small child in Detroit in the 1950s. You would shovel rocks of coal into the furnace and it heats water that is then circulated through radiators.

So what comes out of the stack is fly ash, mercury, sulfur and nitrogen compounds. And because there are so many and they're so small, it's impractical to put a scrubber on each one. It's not until you have centralized heating and electricity generation or natural gas for heating that it's practical to control such things. So it's a matter of the rate of growth of China and the finances. But, of course, you need the political will to implement such changes. And that's currently also lacking.

HOBSON: Professor, if you look at this country, we are not dealing right now with these kinds of coal-burning smogs that are going on in China. But how are we doing on smog? And I'm thinking specifically of Los Angeles, where I see that the smog levels have dropped by more than 85 percent since the 1970s.

DICKERSON: That's right. Ozone, which is a characteristic of Los Angeles-type smog, has dramatically improved over the United States over the past few decades. This is due to controls on nitrogen oxide emissions, the thing that makes ozone, makes Los Angeles type smog, from power plants and cars. Cars continue to get better all the time. We are still not where we need to be, however. My epidemiologist friends tell me that there's still a lot of morbidity and mortality associated with the current levels of ozone in the U.S.

And the last science advisory report, Integrated Science Assessment done for the EPA, recommended an ozone level of between 60 and 70 parts per billion. That hasn't been implemented yet, but it really should be to protect human health. So we've done really well. Washington, Baltimore, New York and Los Angeles, likewise, have improved their air quality substantially. But it's still a threat, especially to people with a compromised respiratory system.

HOBSON: Russ Dickerson is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Maryland. Professor Dickerson, thanks so much for coming in.

DICKERSON: My pleasure.

HOBSON: And one headline out of China today. Bo Xilai, the once rising star in China's Communist Party, was in court hoping to overturn a life sentence. His appeal did not work. But experts say that his life sentence could be reduced to just about 10 years if there's good behavior and medical parole.

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