China has declared war on air pollution, and is rolling out an array of anti-smog measures that are truly unimaginable.
China’s air quality has gotten so bad that it has been described, rather accurately, as resembling nuclear winter, as crazy bad, even as something chewable. It is no longer uncommon for people to wake up in the morning and not be able to see through the opaque haze far enough to cleanly make out the buildings right across the street.
What makes the situation even worse is that the problem is no longer localized to big cities and major manufacturing centers, and “storms” of insanely thick air pollution now have the power to cover incredible swaths of the country (i.e. the ENTIRE northeast or from Shanghai to Chongqing), shutting down cities and blanketing even natural areas for thousands and thousands of miles.
Everybody knows this.
But China is on it. Declaring war on air pollution, the PRC is prepared to pump 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) into coming up with solutions to curb the fuzzy sludge that opaques most of their country’s cities. This has led to the creation of several new and innovative, interesting — even ridiculous — pollution fighting methods.
#13. Sky Watering Skyscrapers
Technically, it is called precipitation scavenging. In actuality all this means is turning skyscrapers into giant sprinklers in an effort to wash the skies of pollution. “If you can offer a half-hour watering your garden, then you can offer a half-hour watering your ambient atmosphere to keep air clean . . . ,” rings the sales pitch of this rather lo-fi geoengineering strategy.
Basically, precipitation scavenging works on the premise that rain clears smog, so artificial rain should do the same. To create “rain,” giant sprinklers will be attached to the roofs of tall buildings in China’s most polluted cities. During times when the air pollution rises due to a lack of rain the sprinklers will turn on, pulling SO2, NOx, and other airborne poisons out of the sky and dropping them down to the ground below. Researchers estimate that even on China’s worst air days it would only take a few hours to a few days of artificial rain to drop the PM 2.5 content down to 35 µg m-3, the recommended WHO limit — leaving blue skies in its wake.
As for where this water will come from, researchers say that it could easily be taken from nearby lakes and rivers, where it could be pumped up to the tops of skyscrapers, sprayed, collected, and then cycled back through the system. Though I have to admit that the thought of having the bubbling sludge from many of China’s polluted waterways being sprinkled out on top of my head doesn’t sound very appealing. The last thing we need is a second deadly aerial assault.
As for the cost of precipitation scavenging, researchers estimate that it would only take 1 kilowatt hour of electricity to lift one ton of water 200 meters, which would apparently only cost around $0.05. “. . . the low-tech nature of this geoengineering approach has led us to believe that it will cost much less than many other interventions such as cutting emissions.”
(Yes, that’s a direct quote.)
Oh yeah, proponents of precipitation scavenging would also like to add that their system comes with a built in duel purpose bonus: it could also be used to fight fires.
Read Shaocai Yu’s research on this geoengineering method.
#12. Giant Floating Jellyfish-Like Acid Eating Membranes
If you don’t necessarily like the idea of artificial rain showers of potentially toxic Chinese river water knocking particulate matter out of the sky then here’s another solution you may prefer. It consists of launching squadrons of giant floating jellyfish-like membranes into the sky that eat SO2, NOx, and other pollutants which harm plants, animals, architecture, and humans, and then turning them into reclaimed water and chemical fertilizer.
Technically they’re called aerocysts.
Giant membranes filled with H2.
The H2 makes the aerocysts float and the long flowing tentacles hanging off of their bottoms make them look unequivocally like jellyfish.
If this strategy is ever implemented on a large scale China’s urban skies will be full of these things hovering 200-300 meters off the ground, where the most acidic pollutants hang out. The membrane, which makes up the jellyfish-like “head” of the apparatus is porous and will suck in the acidic materials it touches, thus removing them from the environment.
But these dystopian drones don’t stop there, as after the acidic materials are collected they are run through an on-deck purifier, which neutralizes them with with an on board microorganism produced alkaline substance. The now PH balanced gunk will then be transformed into a neutral, benign liquid with ammonium salt, which will conveniently be derived from the plants which will be growing off of the tentacles. When all filled up, the aerocysts will be programmed to return to port and deposit the liquid into a receptacle, where it can later be used as reclaimed water.
#11. Smog Fighting Drones
While talking about unmanned aerial anti-pollution devices we can’t leave out the array of smog fighting drones that are being tested throughout China. The most promising is a parafoil drone, which basically looks like a generator hanging from a parachute, that is being developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. It’s function is to soar through the air blasting PM 2.5 particles with a chemical which freezes them, thus making them fall to the earth below. Each of these drones can clean a five square kilometer area, which is about large enough to scrub the air around an airport, port, or, as the case may be, urban districts where select groups of influential citizens wish to have cleaner air. Apparently, the Chinese government has already been using fixed-wing drones to chemically remove smog for some years now, but this new design allows each one to carry far more ammunition.
Though, of course, nobody really knows what effect these airborne “chemicals” will have on the humans and environment they will inevitably dust below.
#10. Impregnating the Air with Liquid Nitrogen
It is know that under the right circumstances artificially cooling particulate matter can disperse them from the atmosphere, and liquid nitrogen has been shown to be one of the best smog fighting chemicals yet available. Basically, the idea is to blast industrial coolant into the sky, which can cause crystals to form on PM 2.5 particles, whereupon gravity will do the rest. This method can also create a blanket of cool air which prevents warmer, polluted air from reaching the street surface.
“It is possible in theory to create a smog-free zone with liquid nitrogen and a shield against air pollutants with man-made cold, but even in laboratories we handle liquid nitrogen with care due to its extremely low temperature,” Dr. Wang Xinfeng, a researcher out of Shandong University in Jinan, told the SCMP.
#9. Cloud Seeding
As we’ve previously discovered, precipitation knocks smog out of the skies. So why not just create rain and snow? Cloud seeding, an anti-pollution measure which consists of blasting silver iodine packed rockets into clouds, is back. This was one of the ways that Beijing manufactured blue skies for the Olympics, and, according to a document published by the China Meteorological Administration, in 2015 local municipalities across China will be given the go ahead to use it at will.
When the silver iodine is shot into the clouds it assists in the formation of ice crystals, which then melt and drop to the ground below as rain, cleaning the skies in the process.
As a side note, silver iodide is toxic.
#8. Just Vacuum It
It has been suggested by Dutch researcher Daan Roosgaarde that China could create patches of clean air by essentially vacuuming it up. The method consists of burying Tesla coils just beneath the ground, which would then create an electrostatic field that could create a shaft of clean air by sucking away particulate matter and depositing it on the ground. In laboratory tests at the University of Delft, Roosgaarde has been able to clear smog from a one cubic meter area in five cubic meter room. He currently has a deal with Beijing to test out one of these devices in one of the city’s parks.
A year or so ago a high-end school in Beijing offered my wife a job. Like so many others, she ultimately turned it down due to the atrocious quality of the city’s air. The school’s rebuttal was that they were building a giant bubble around their playground. This fact came off as more frightening than enticing: Is the air there really so bad that people are living in airtight domes?
In China’s smog encapsulated wealthy cities biodomes may soon become a part of life. Well, they may someday become a part of life for those who can afford to go to institutions that can pick up the tab — as at $950 per square meter, biodomes don’t come cheap.
These structures are essentially giant transparent domes that can enclose gardens, playgrounds, sports centers, schools yards — maybe someday even homes or entire neighborhoods. The ambient environment within these pods will be controlled, the air will be filtered of particulate matter and other pollutants, essentially creating an entire artificial environment.
The “Bubbles” concept is designed to be an encapsulated oasis of clean air, much like the planet-sized air shield from the movie Spaceballs. Bubbles won’t be anywhere near planetary, of course. Instead, this air shield will house a park and botanical garden. Above the canopy, an undulating glass roof will contain translucent solar cells meant to collect whatever light actually penetrates Beijing’s Mordor-like perpetual gloom.
Though their builders are approaching them like any other project. “It’s just an infrastructure project like building metro stations and parks,” said Rajat Sodhi of Orproject, a British company that specializes in biodomes. (Yes, there are now companies specializing in biodomes). Perhaps more than anything else on this list, this strategy makes us realize that yes, it has really come to this.
#6. Banning Outdoor Barbecues
Air pollution looks like smoke and, well, smoke looks like smoke. Cooking food produces smoke, so perhaps cooking could be partiality responsible for the atrocious state of China’s air? Apparently, this is the thinking behind Beijing’s ban on outdoor barbecues. According to the Global Times, almost 13% of the particulate matter in Beijing’s air comes from cooking. That doesn’t quite seem right, but as the GT is the international mouthpiece of the PRC who could deny it? The outdoor barbecue ban was first enacted in 2000 but was not enforced until recently, when the city’s chengguan have been going around smashing smoke emitting street food stales and fining their proprietors.
#5. Removing 6 Million Cars
Calling the country’s environmental situation “extremely grim,” the PRC announced that it will remove nearly 5.3 million higher polluting cars off the roads this year. Basically, all vehicles manufactured before 2005 are going to get the boot. 330,000 will be removed from Beijing alone, and an incredible 660,000 will be decommissioned in Hebei Province, which is one of the smoggiest regions in the world. China currently has 240 million automobiles on the road, half being passenger cars. Though, in rather typical Chinese fashion, the decree lacks a disclosure as to how this measure is going to be put into effect.
Along with this initiative comes a plan to require gas stations in Beijing, Shanghai, and a handful of other large cities to sell only the highest grade, lowest polluting fuel available.
Actually, this doesn’t seem to be that deranged of a pollution fighting method after all.
#4. Removing Mountains
In 1997, Lanzhou’s Daqingshan Project aimed to remove a 1,689 meter high mountain that encased the city improve its air quality — as well as to create a little extra land that could be sold to developers. Lanzhou also has some of the worst air on the planet, which is partially a result of the fact that it sits deep down in a valley and is hemmed in on all sides by mountains. So to increase circulation a little and whisk away some smog the city decided to just remove one of the largest mountains that rose above it. They actually removed half of it before it became obvious that it just wasn’t going to work: the air quality remained as sordid as ever.
This is not a potential “solution” that has yet been replicated elsewhere.
#3. Coal by Wire
Out of sight out of mind. Or, more poignantly, if it’s far away from major cities then who gives a shit seems to be the philosophy behind China’s coal by wire initiative. This is one of the most massive infrastructural projects going in the world today, and consists of building large amounts of coal fired power plants way out in remote places in China’s north and west and sending the energy over thousands of miles to big cities. The initiative is a continuation of an ongoing movement to decentralize and disperse heavy polluting industries into the hinterlands of the country, where less people will see them and feel their immediate effects.
So in-focus places like Beijing and Shanghai will become less and less polluted while previously pristine areas that hardly anybody knows even exist, like Hulunbuir, will become wastelands. Already, the wide open grasslands of Inner Mongolia are speckled with expansive arrays of power plants, and this looks to be a trend that will be intensified over the coming decades.
The biggest problem with coal by wire, besides environmentally assaulting millions of innocent bystanders and destroying China’s last unpolluted frontiers, is the fact that the places most of the power plants are going tend to have a low supply of water. As coal fed power plants need incredible amounts of freshwater to function, there is a definite conflict of interests built into this initiative.
#2. Turning Coal into Gas
China plans to cut down the particulate matter in the northern reaches of the country by 25 per cent by 2017. One of the main ways it intends to do this is by turning coal into gas. While coal is often blamed for the most of China’s air pollution woes, natural gas burns cleaner, creating less emissions. So why not just convert the coal to natural gas in order to use China’s abundant supplies of this energy source in a way that will create less air pollution? That’s the strategy behind China’s new initiative to raise synthetic coal-to-gas output to 50 Bcm a year by 2020, which would account for 12.5% of the country’s total domestic gas supply. To these ends, approval was given to build 18 new large scale synthetic natural gas (SNG) plants across China’s northern fringes.
Though this plan does not seem to be the environmental solution it’s initially billed to be:
While SNG emits fewer particulates into the air than burning coal, it releases significantly more greenhouse gases than mainstream fossil fuels. Peer-reviewed studies in the journal Energy Policy estimate that life-cycle CO2 emissions are 36–108 percent higher than coal when coal-based SNG is used for cooking, heating, and power generation. Rapidly deploying SNG projects might, therefore, be a step backward for China’s low-carbon energy strategy.
According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the production of synthetic gas could ultimately result in twice the total carbon emissions as coal-fired energy.
Converting coal to natural gas is also takes an incredible amount of water. It takes 6-10 liters of water to produce one cubic meter of SNG. As most of the new coal to gas power plants are to be built in the China’s arid northern regions — Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia — they will further add stresses to a water table that’s already coming close to tapping out.
Like the Coal By Wire initiative, SNG production is an effort to keep the big cities of China’s east running with cleaner skies by exporting environmental stresses out to the hinterlands:
Under a memorandum of understanding with the Inner Mongolia Government, Beijing will become the first Chinese city powered by SNG, receiving at least 4 billion cubic meters of the fuel annually. This production would consume more than 32 billion liters of freshwater, enough to meet 1 million Inner Mongolians’ domestic needs for an entire year.
#1. Building Ecocities
The words “eco” and “city” combined together in any fashion sound like an oxymoron. If ecological well-being alone was truly the goal, China probably wouldn’t being plowing up thousands of square kilometers of agricultural fields, small villages, wooded areas, and foothills to build new ecocities. “It’s difficult everywhere, all over the world, to develop something like cities in a sustainable way,” spoke Fanny Hoffman-Loss, the principle architect of the Nanhui eco-city that sits at the far edge of Shangha’s Pudong district. Though there are nearly 300 ecocities that are being built across China. That’s around one ecocity per every two municipalities in the entire country, and the trend is expected to grow until 50% of all new urban developments will flaunt the “eco” banner. These cities are sold as being a low polluting alternative to conventional cities, tend to have tight emissions standards, and are meant to be models for future urbanism. But does building any type of new city from scratch actually serve to better the environment in anyway? Who knows, but in the mean time these intriguing cutting edge developments can at least take our minds off the thick gray air that invariably hems them in.
In the war against air pollution China is obviously very committed, but one relatively decent solution is oddly missing from this list: a reduction of coal power. As emissions from coal fired power plants make up a huge portion of China’s particulate matter it would seem as if improving air quality would mean an immediate transitioning away from this source of energy. But that’s not the case — at least not anytime soon. In fact, China is actively at work increasing its coal power capacity. By 2020 China’s coal derived energy will rise by 75%, taking on another 557GW (around half the total energy capacity of the USA) from 363 new coal fired power plants. China already burns nearly as much coal as almost the rest of the world combined, and plans to rise this intake from 3.5 billion tons per year (2012) to 4.8 billion tons by 2020. Though the PRC claims that it aims to reduce coal power to 65% of the nation’s total energy supply in the coming decade, it also plans on nearly doubling its total energy output — which will be primarily lead by increasing coal energy production.
Yes, in the face of mass public discontent, millions of premature deaths, a pandemic of respiratory illnesses, and economic backlashes due to air pollution, China is rampantly increasing it’s use of coal as an energy source. As each coal fired power plant has a lifespan of 50 to 75 years, China will remain dependent on this energy source throughout most of the coming century — and it’s skies will remain a murky gray sludge, no matter what insane pollution fighting measures are taken.
While some say that tighter regulations on industrial pollution, stronger emission standards, and a quicker transition away from coal power would drastically improve the quality of China’s air, the PRC would apparently rather go with sci-fi-esque smog fighting drones, floating acid eating membranes, biodomes, air sprinkling skyscrapers, cloud seeding, and aerial liquid nitrogen blasters. China wants to have their emissions and breath clean air too, but even with squadrons of pollution scrubbers hovering over airtight domes in the middle of ecocities, ‘Airpocalypses’ will more than likely remain an integral part of the China experience for a long time yet.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
May 28, 2014, 9:27 am
Great article on air pollution in China.
I guess for China, or perhaps other countries(not just air pollution), in terms of economic growth, jeopardizing it in any way is a definite no-no, just like if a person is content with living an extravagant lifestyle, would that person trade that in, to live in the slums or something lesser than what he/she previously had
I am sure that since China is growing richer, asking them to cut down the production of its bulk from the primary sector(correct me if I am wrong), would probably devastate its economy to a certain degree, and considering the current affairs of the relationship China has with other countries, I am definitely sure that China would not solve the core issue, perhaps anywhere in the near future. More likely, the “solutions” that you have pointed out as above, would serve to “placate” the public.
May 28, 2014, 4:18 pm
Sounds like politics at work if you ask me. Feign interest in solving the pollution problem and make it look good on paper, but really denying the core issues and an unwillingness to do what truly needs to be done. (Ban outdoor bbqs, remove surrounding hillsides? really?) All those solutions are pure crazy, except #5 as you mentioned. It’s the same thing around the world, everyone wants to reduce pollution and fix global warming, but no one is ready to do what it truly takes, which is simply to minimize the activities that cause pollution, which none of those things (except 5) do. Caroline nailed it, any major changes would cause at least a minor economic shakeup which no one is willing to do.
May 31, 2014, 6:58 am
I just love the idea of the watering skyscrapers… why don’t all world cities with a lack of rain employ this tactic to keep folk cool???
The big Q is… why would they pour dilute acid onto citizens heads? May be they all want to be bald!
May 31, 2014, 10:06 pm
Those are some pretty outlandish suggestions. I think my favorite is between the floating jellyfish or the sky sprinklers. Either way, it is evident that something needs to be done there soon to curb the pollution.
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