Tuesday, August 12, 2008

China's Hidden Export: Air Pollution

The run up to the Beijing Olympics was full of photos and news reports of Beijing's legendary smog. Almost any distance shot comes automatically with a smog-induced atmospheric view. The reports talked about concern over the affect of the air pollution on athlete performance. Well I'm starting to wonder, with everything that China is making and exporting over there, How soon before they start exporting their air pollution all the way to California?

The Bay Area has been environmentally concious for a long time. But I can't help thinking that some of this came easy. When it comes to air pollution, we of course have rules designed to minimize power plant and factory emmissions but we are also blessed with a steady stream of fresh air off the Pacific.

I went to school in the 80s in upstate New York. Acid Rain was a common topic of interest at that time. Lakes were dying because the coal induced pollution was raising the PH of the lakes to a level where they could no longer support life. It was particularly dramatic in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. The Adirondacks are one of the larger wilderness areas on the East Coast and yet they were being heavily affected by the output of far away industries. At the time, NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group was spending a lot of time on the issue. They determined that industries based in Ohio were partially to blame. Ohio's coal, tire and steel industries were releasing a tremendous amount of sulfur into the atmosphere. Once in the air, the pollution would move east with the weather. Eventually it would rain and the sulfur would mix with the water to create sulfur dioxide: "acid rain". It became an eye opener to many that actions in one state would have most of their impact felt in the next state.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I remember thinking how lucky we were to live on the Pacific coast with regards to air quality. There's no Ohio sitting next to us spewing sulfur into the air. But now I'm starting to wonder. It might not be next to us but China is a lot bigger than Ohio and putting a lot more up into the air.

How bad does it have to get before California, the most ecologicaly-minded state in the US, gets on the pollution watch list. Of course LA is already legendary for its smog. But smog in LA is a very local phenomenon. It is a combination of locally generated pollution, weather and geography. The hills surrounding much of the city give the smog no easy exit so the problem is both contained and concentrated.

According to this article, China is now opening up two new coal-fired power plants a week. Coal represents one of our biggest challenges with respect to global warming. It is possible the dirtiest carbon-based fuel but the only one the countries like the US and China have a large supply of. With oil prices skyrocketing, the temptation to burn even more coal will continue to grow. How long before our beloved cool Pacific breezes start to feel a bit warmer and take on a brownish tint?

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