Back in the PRC

by Bill Chameides | August 11th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Former Georgia Tech grad student Jin Xu measures haze levels at Rural Lin An Observatory in 1999. The persistent hazy conditions were caused by air pollution. Average particulate levels here routinely exceeded U.S. air quality standards

The 2008 Summer Olympics are underway, and all the world is either in or watching China. I too am headed that way -– sitting in a Boeing 777-ER somewhere over the Bering Strait as I write. But, alas, my destination is Hong Kong not Beijing. And I won’t be watching the games; I will be visiting City University of Hong Kong. But hearing talk of Beijing’s poor air quality while returning to China jogs cloudy memories.

In the early 1990s one cause-and-effect pair seemed clear: China’s rapid economic development without adequate pollution limits would have serious consequences, especially for global warming. However, telling a developing nation with many impoverished citizens to slow its economic growth because it’s not good for the planet is a tough sell.

What might be more effective, I thought, was demonstrating that China’s air pollution could economically harm the Chinese themselves — that would help show that getting green was in their direct interest. In 1995 I helped initiate a joint Chinese-U.S. research project called China-MAP, supported by NASA and the Chinese National Science Foundation. Between 1995 and 2002, China-MAP documented pollution levels in the Yangtze Delta and their effects.

I then helped direct a study of air pollution in Guandong Province and Hong Kong. It probably doesn’t surprise you that we found a lot of pollution –- some of it we could explain, some we could not.

The Hong Kong study ended four years ago. This is my first trip back since 2004.

Is it Fog or Smog?


Reports from the games on Beijing’s foggy and hazy skies have people puzzled: is it pollution or just fog? Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said this on the subject: “It does not mean that this fog is the same as pollution. It can be pollution, but the fog doesn’t necessarily mean that it is pollution.” Clear as mud, right?

Flashback to 1995. I was traveling around China with a colleague of mine, C.S. Kiang. We were looking for locations for our China-MAP monitoring stations. Everywhere we went it was foggy, smoggy, hazy. We’d ask people if the stuff obscuring our vision and coloring everything gray was just fog and clouds or pollution. We got lots of different answers but nothing definitive.

One day at the crack of dawn, we were in a taxi barreling down the highway outside of Chengdu at about 100 mph in a pea-soup thick fog. Though we literally couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us, the driver drove pedal to the metal. C.S. and I, our hands gripping the seat for dear life (as if that would make any difference) decided to subtly address the conundrum.

“Is that fog or smog?” asked C.S.

The driver had no idea but he did have a story. “Everywhere else in the world,” he said, “dogs howl when the moon is full because it is such a rare occasion. In China, the dogs howl when the sun comes out.”

After surviving that cab ride we went on to find that a good part of that fog is pollution-related. Today, I would bet that much of the fog and haze clouding the Beijing Olympics is also from pollution.

Even so, China is making progress. The government recognizes that air pollution is a serious problem and has placed significant pollution control regulations on cars and power plants. Of course, it takes time for such measures to have an impact, and enforcement is always difficult.

In the meantime my advice for the athletes: pray for rain and listen for howling dogs.`

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