Beijing F(SM)OG – Part 2

When I travel I am kind of a nut for air pollution and atmospheric stuff. Sandy thinks I’m nuts, but when we visited LA for the first time I was like a kid in a candy store. From being able to smell the “burning tire” signature as we come over the basin rim from the north (before becoming desensitized about 2 minutes later), to seeing that big, fudgy, textbook inversion over downtown… it was pretty damn cool. Coughing up a big black chunk of LA’s finest when we pulled in to a rest stop in Joshua Tree… less damn cool.

(Warning: Air Pollution Geekery Ahead)

So China was something I really looked forward to. First, the flight to Beijing meant flying over the North Freaking Pole. That was worth it right there. Then came the air quality nerdvana experience. Some people taste fine wine… I taste air! In Beijing it was pretty straight forward: very forward sulfate acidity, dark nitrate overtones, and a lingering punch of particulates that just won’t quit! The deal with China is that their air pollution is not urban, like we are accustomed to in the US. Theirs is regional… and often continental. Huge areas of the country are smothered in smog. There are a lot of sources, but one that might be missed is charcoal.

Air pollution sources can be aggregated and into an “inventory”. You develop one by trying to account for the different activities that contribute to pollution. Fossil fuel combustion is easy because fossil fuels are a well-managed commodity. It gets used in electric power generation, transportation, industrial applications, and home heating, to name the big ones. The “Beijing Plan” was to cut back on transportation and electric generation, and try to restrain some manufacturing emissions. We could argue that cutting back on electricity and transportation while hosting the olympics is a bad idea, or impossible, but who would listen? In the US we cook our food primarily with electricity or natural gas. We have a lot of infrastructure to deliver that energy to our homes. Very little of that infrastructure exists outside of the modernized central Beijing. When you are talking about a population of 15 million, a huge amount of them are on the outside looking in on electric and gas stoves. What you see is the “charcoal man” with a wheelbarrow full of these fuel cartridges that are about the size of a coffee can. That fuel is the core of the typical Beijinger’s kitchen. They fit into a concrete, metal, or ceramic “stoves” and generate the blast of concentrated heat needed for traditional wok cooking. Cooking fuel can be a huge factor in air pollution. It doesn’t sound like much until you do the math, and try to feed about 10 million (I’m being kind) people from charcoal burners. All of those storefront, neighborhood, night market, and fly-by-night food joints… they are not cooking with gas. They are cooking on charcoal, coal, or maybe wood. This is the definition of an “area source”. A power plant or factory is a “point source”. Regulating point sources is effective if you don’t have massive area sources. Beijing has massive area sources.

So while the “Beijing Plan” is well intentioned, it is (IMO) a complete waste of effort. A lot of pollution is “secondary”, meaning that it forms in the atmosphere as opposed to being emitted directly. Secondary pollutants are notoriously hard to reduce because the starting materials are so abundant. Ozone is the king of secondary pollutants, and as the Chinese know so well, ozone is the primary constituent of smog. It forms when volatile organics (VOC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) combine under UV light. China has all three in SPADES, brotha. You could shut the whole country off, cold turkey, and you would still have plenty of smog for quite a while. To their credit, the Chinese government did *something* to try to mitigate their air pollution issues. But it is basically window dressing. The underlying air pollution sources have not been attenuated.


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