Unclean Coal: Record-Breaking Air Pollution Nearly Shuts Down Chinese City


Extreme levels of air pollution forced schools, roads and the airport to close in a large city in northeastern China on Monday.

In Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang province, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) reached levels of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the city, readings 40 times the level of 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter that the World Health Organization considers ideal for human health and more than three times the level of 300 that’s considered hazardous — for comparison, as the New York Times notes, the air quality index in New York was 41 on Monday morning. It was the first time PM2.5 readings have hit 1,000 since China began releasing data on PM2.5 in January 2012.

Reducing visibility to less than 50 yards in some areas, the smog forced elementary and middle schools to cancel classes, closed some highways and led to cancellations of at least 40 flights. It was the first time this winter, a period known as the “heating season” that smog caused major problems for Chinese residents. In China, the heating season begins when city managers switch on the heating systems in homes and city buildings, which in Harbin happened on Sunday. The extra coal it takes to heat China’s cities in the winter, coupled with winter weather patterns makes the season especially prone to high levels of smog in the country.



China has long struggled with air pollution, particularly in the capital city of Beijing. This past winter, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached 755, leading to state-owned media sources to call the pollution a “suffocating siege” and ask for a “healthy debate” about air quality in China. The smog also caused major health issues for Beijing residents: according to a Chinese hospital official, the number of people admitted to emergency rooms because of heart attacks roughly doubled while pollution in the city was high. The increase in hospital admissions isn’t surprising: the same thing happened in Harbin on Monday, with hospital admissions increasing by 30 percent as patients with breathing problems flooded area hospitals. Earlier this year, a study found air pollution has reduced life expectancy in northern China by five and a half years.

Since that record-breaking week in Beijing, China has made efforts to address its air pollution problem. In September, the country unveiled its new $817 billion plan to fight air pollution by 2017. The plan is ambitious, with Beijing aiming to cut its PM2.5 pollution to 60 micrograms per cubic meter, a huge drop from the 102 reading that was the average for the first six months of 2013. Beijing will close 1,200 factories, limit the number of vehicle permits it assigns to 6 million and, most importantly, reduce its coal consumption from 23 million tons per year to 10 million. Currently, China consumes almost twice as much coal as the rest of the world combined.

The Chinese government is also planning on publishing a list of the country’s ten best and worst cities for air pollution, hoping that this public lauding and shaming method will spur action on the part of local governments. China has also introduced a pilot carbon trading program in seven cities and provinces, including Beijing but excluding Harbin and Heilongjiang. Northeastern China has made efforts in the past to curb its outsized levels of air pollution, but since Harbin is one of the coldest cities in China and depends on the coal-powered central heating system, it is likely to struggle with heavy-smog days until China is able to move away from coal as its main energy source.