The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Harbin, a city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in China, is covered in such dense smog that several airports and highways, as well as many schools, have been closed. People in Harbin are wearing masks to protect themselves from PM 2.5 particulates in the air. The concentration of those particulates has exceeded the maximum U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) level of 500 mg per cubic meter, resulting in visibility of less than 65 feet. The EPA is reported as stating that those are “extremely rare” readings, typically occurring during such events as forest fires.
The smog in Harbin, nearly 700 miles northeast of the Heibei province city of Beijing, is a result of the use of coal in the region. National Geographic reports that the city of more than 10 million people relies on coal for heating for six months of the year. (These photos show the difference in air quality before and after the start of the heating season.) In an effort to reduce the need for burning coal, Harbin spent $1.1 million in 2010 to retrofit 21 million square feet of residential buildings by adding five new layers of wall insulation. They also added better windows and and roofing.
China relies on coal for fuel for 70% of its energy consumption. In fact, National Geographic reports, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal. They are also the world’s leader in carbon emissions. This reliance has serious consequences not only for the health of citizens of China, but also for the carbon footprint of the planet.
The New York Times reported this week that once the municipal heating system – which relies on coal – went into action, air quality levels quickly rose to “hazardous” levels, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as levels between 301-500. For comparison, the NY Times reported that the level in New York City on Monday morning was 41. The Times also wrote that, as a result of this rise in particulates, a 30 percent surge in hospital admissions of patients with respiratory problems was reported in local news media.
“The city weather bureau blamed the pollution on three factors: a lack of wind; local farms burning corn leaves and stalks after the harvest; and the start of the municipal central heating system, which provides heat to millions of homes and offices and relies on large coal-burning boilers across the city,” reported the Times.
In September, Reuters reported that the Chinese government was initiating new measures to reduce the dependence upon coal. The plan calls for a cut of PM 2.5 levels by 25% in Beijing and surrounding areas by 2017. “We don’t see any fundamental structural changes, and this could be a potential risk in China’s efforts to meet targets to reduce PM2.5, said Huang” Wei, a campaigner with Greenpeace in Beijing, in reference to China’s plan.