While in the U.S. debate rages on about global warming, pollution, and health, other parts of the world are already suffering from the effects of global industrialization. The most concerning country, China, has experienced months of poor air quality. In most places in the U.S., a typical warning of poor air quality may mean slight smog, higher ozone levels, and cancellation of after-school sports.
But in China, poor air quality means harmful, dangerous, and even fatal levels of particulates in the air. It means locking yourself indoors, wearing a mask if you venture outside, and risking hospitalization just for the simple act of breathing.
Last month on January 12, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Beijing hit a record 755. The Economist called it the “Blackest Day.” For comparison, the AQI scales stops at 500, and anything above 400 is considered hazardous for all. Over the past week, the pollution has been so bad that satellite images can see it from space. In addition, hospitals are seeing hundreds of people coming in for respiratory problems.
On the internet, people have taken to calling it the “airpocalypse,” a name that captures the true impact of the poor air quality. Imagine permanently living in the smoking lounge of an airport, and you may understand what thousands of residents in Beijing go through each day.
The Chinese government denied the high levels of air pollution for years, but recently has allowed more independent testing and announcements of poor air quality in the interest of public health. Over the last week, they also announced several new regulations that would go into effect March 1st, primarily targeting power plants and chemical factories.
The biggest cause of the smog and smoke from these factories is burning coal, just one side-effect of rapid industrialization to keep pace in a global economy. You can add thousands of coal-burning homes to those factories, and it all equals not just outdoor air pollution, but poor indoor air quality too. In 2011, China consumed 47% of all the coal used in the world. This year, they may consume more coal than all other countries combined.
In Bejing, authorities have taken steps to reduce consumption and pollution. In January, they shut down production of a billion-dollar chemical plant, and have been trying to regulate factories. However, smaller factories outside the city often escape notice. And a recent cold front may have contributed to the sudden leap in air particulates, as people use more and more coal to heat their homes.
The smog from Beijing also travels, spreading across China and even crossing the ocean to California. Worldwide, air pollution causes over 6 million deaths a year. And the recent struggles in China show that it may already be too late to improve air quality.
The best ways to curb the problem now include better and more far-reaching regulation, as well as investments in green technology.