Slogging Through the Smog in Beijing

It’s no secret that Beijing has an air pollution problem. The city’s PM2.5 (a measure of particulates in the air) routinely exceed unsafe levels; and I don’t mean exceed by just a tad, exceed by 800% or more. About 4000 people per day die in China from air pollution. I saw – literally – this pollution on my most recent visit to Beijing.

The view from the apartment where I was staying, in the southern part of the city far from the touristy areas, gave me a good indication of what I was to experience.

Beijing smog

That isn’t fog; it’s smog, which smog permeated the air no matter where I went. Mid-afternoon on a “sunny” day, the huge portrait of Mao Zedong on the front wall of the Forbidden City was barely visible from Tian’anmen Square.

Beijing smog

I didn’t just happen to pick a bad day; this is routine. So routine that the government installed huge television screens, ostensibly as tourist marketing advertisements, but often filled with beautiful vistas of Chinese landscapes. They even show photos of the Forbidden City on those days where the entire facade is hidden.

Beijing smog

As I write this Beijing is preparing for its September 3rd remembrance of the end of World War II for China 70 years before. As with many big international events held in Beijing, including the 2008 Olympics and the 2014 APEC Summit, the Chinese government has ordered stopgap measures to make Beijing more palatable to foreign dignitaries. This means closing down much of the capital, shutting down factories, and banning odd/even tagged cars on alternate days. These result in temporary cleansing of the air – just long enough for the foreign press to get nice pictures. Once the grand show is over, the air clogs up again and residents don their dust masks in a feeble attempt at normalcy.

Science Traveler will cover more of the science of China in future posts. One area of interest is the impact of a growing middle class, and the consumption that goes with it, on energy demand. China has a coal and oil problem even worse than the United States, but it also has been building solar and wind capacity. Clearly they have to do something, not just for climate change considerations, but for the health of their own citizens.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Slogging Through the Smog in Beijing

  1. Ironic, considering the post I made just last night. But I know the recent Berkely Earth report about China’s air has been called, “The Greatest Environmental Catastrophe in the World Today.”

    That said, I think China is going through the same growth problems as the Japan of my childhood. Air (and other) pollution was terrible in the 70’s, and I recall my dad (who was a physician) saying that there were many cases when people would collapse, and sometimes die from the bad air in Tokyo. But that also means there’s hope that things can be greatly improved, as today’s Japan hardly resembles that image anymore. China is also investing heavily into alternative, cleaner sources of energy.

    The world is slowly being forced to realize that what is presently “cheap and expedient” isn’t necessarily cost-effective over the long term. Fossil-fuels, especially, seem like a credit card handed to a live-in-the-moment teenager. Accumulating debt in everything from atmospheric CO2 to mercury in the ocean food web, the bill (with interest) is going to be staggering when the time comes to pay-up.

    • Indeed, China is going through the growing pains the US, Europe, and Japan went through before, which makes me wonder why no one seems to learn the lessons from everyone else’s failures. You don’t see newly developing countries put in a lot of land lines for telephones; they bypass that and go straight to modern cell systems.

      I agree with your “cheap and expedient” doesn’t necessarily mean cost-effective comment. I’ve been dealing with climate change communication for years and the one thing that still amazes me is peoples’ inability to think beyond the end of their arm.

      Will check out your post (I’ve been busy editing all day).

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