On the relation between coughing fits and climate change

Air Pollution In Beijing

I see that Beijing’s air quality problem is in the news again. The smog has apparently returned to Beijing, enveloping the Beijing Marathon, so that many of the runners who didn’t give up ran around in face masks or respirators. The international APEX conference in the city is embarrassingly threatened as the smog takes hold. Authorities in Hubei province have closed some plants to try to mitigate some of the effects in time for the conference. Earlier in the year, Beijing authorities acted to outlaw street food stalls burning charcoal, claiming that they caused many of the problems.

Now this is something I can discuss reasonably authoritatively (not that this implies that all the rest of the stuff I raise here is not) since I was in Beijing last week with the Energy and Climate Change Select committee to discuss international carbon trading (incidentally the Chinese are looking very serious about their seven pilot schemes, aiming to go national next year). Yes I was there, and it was not just bad, it was (literally) eye wateringly terrible. When we arrived the unofficial estimates of the black carbon particles per cubic metre were about 500, and even the official estimate was over 400. How bad is that actually? Well, you could hardly see buildings across the street, the sky was cloudless but you couldn’t see the sun, except occasionally as a faint orange glow in the sky. And the air itself tasted gritty and…well, coaly.

Anything above 300 is regarded as ‘hazardous’ and the WHO recommendation is that lengthy exposure to anything over 25 is potentially problematic. It is that bad. Not that London’s air quality is that wonderful; co-incidentally I took part in an experiment for Imperial College and the Environmental Audit Committee in the summer where I travelled around London, and Southampton with a portable air quality monitoring device attached to me. It recorded the following:


Activity and location Average black carbon concentration (µg/m3)
Parliament Sq Walking 3.5
Whitehall Walking 7.2
Tube 27.3
Oxford St Walking 8.0
Taxi 31.7
City Hall Walking 3.3
Train 1.5
Car (Evening) 1.4
Car (Morning) 3.9
Central London walking 4.8
Highfield Walking 1.4
Southampton Indoors 0.3
Southampton Walking 1.5

Clearly you should not sit on the tube or in a London Taxi for more than a day at a time, but I think it illustrates just how truly terrible Beijing’s problem is. And not only that, the problem this time round (and largely on other occasions recently when air quality has been particularly bad) is that it is not just about Beijing. We took the (very impressive) Chinese high speed train from Beijing to Wuhan, and for the whole journey, the landscape resembled a film set for Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’; shrouded in ashen grey gloom throughout the day, and a level of over 200, only a little below that in Beijing, when we arrived in Wuhan, five hundred miles away.

I record all this because, oddly, I think these almost apocalyptic events may propel the Chinese authorities far faster towards action on climate change (in addition to the carbon trading that I’ve mentioned) than most other arguments about what ought to be done about clean development and contraction and convergence. For the fact is, and it seems now that the Chinese authorities are fully aware of it, that the smog is so vast and so deep that only radical action over a reasonably short period will have any effect on it – in a way that banning charcoal burners certainly won’t. The authorities are not subject to elections, of course, but the public pressure to deal with it is rapidly increasing, not to mention the likely departure of many companies and staff if quality isn’t improved. For the truth is that most of the smog is clearly caused by China’s addiction to coal as its main means of powering the country. Not only because of its overwhelming reliance on coal for its power stations, but also 8-10% of the smog is probably caused by the installation in most major cities of large coal burning boilers to provide district heating for the apartment blocks that most people now live in.

The Chinese authorities have stated that they will have cured china’s smog problem by 2030, but it is very hard to see how that will be possible without radical cuts in coal power, and with it substantial cuts in emissions, in order to do this. Indeed, as Damian Carrington records in the Guardian on 22nd October, (here) it looks like China’s coal burning actually reduced by 1-2% in 2014, in contrast to the 5-10% annual growth we have been used to for the last decade. It could just be that a corner is being turned, and authorities talk guardedly of a further 1% decrease continuing each year from now on. That won’t be enough to cure Eastern China’s killer smog problem but maybe once China gets used to weaning itself off coal, that rate will accelerate. We may then at last have some real momentum on emissions in China, which others can run alongside. And then we might get some better climate change agreements. And all because, currently, you can hardly breathe in downtown Beijing.

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