The city of Harbin, China is the tenth most populous city in the country and has one of the fastest growing economies in the country. But this week the city was choked with debilitating smog, causing all activity to cease. To their credit, the city quickly enacted emergency measures to ensure the safety of its residents. School children were sent home, planes were grounded, buses were removed from the streets, and roads were shut to prevent accidents.

A satellite image of smog over Northeast China.

A satellite image of smog over Northeast China.

The smog is believed to have originated from cities in the northern part of the country that are already experiencing winter temperatures. As residents crank up their thermostats, more pollution is released into the air as the region’s coal-fired power plants have to put out more energy to meet demand. The emissions usually dissipate into the atmosphere, but on days where the air is moist it can trap those emissions and effectively seal them in at ground level.

These smog events are an all too common occurrence for many urban Chinese. Residents of Beijing experienced heavy smog earlier this year, resulting in several dozen car accidents and an alert from the U.S. embassy advising people to stay indoors. These smog outbreaks are a result of the country’s dependence on coal as an energy source. 68.7% of China’s electricity is derived from coal, with much of the nation’s coal burning power plants located near major metropolitan areas. The prevalence of coal burning, coupled with dense urban centers, has resulted in some of the world’s worst air quality ratings.

The noxious chemical PM 2.5 has been found in high levels throughout Chinese cities with chronic smog problems. This chemical is emitted from coal plants and has been shown to reduce lifespans. Local governments have responded by alerting the public when PM 2.5 levels reach serious levels, allowing residents to take shelter during heavy smog outbreaks.

The Chinese central government is ramping up efforts to combat smog through enhanced industry regulations and removing power plants from metro areas. Beijing has announced that the power plants nearest to the city will either be shut down or converted to natural gas facilities. The government has also enacted a new policy requiring energy producers to shut down one older plant for every new plant that is built.

China has also invested heavily in renewable energy sources. The country currently has the largest installed solar and wind energy capacity with a combined output of roughly 35 GW. At present, the country also receives 20% of its energy form hydroelectric sources. The current Chinese president, Wen Jiabao, has laid out plans to convert coal plants into natural gas facilities which produce less carbon. Along with this new policy comes a renewed investment in nuclear power and shale gas, taking a page from the United States’ booming natural gas industry.

Source: New York Times