The silver lining to China’s smog

When it comes to China’s environmental progress, it can be hard to find much of a silver lining. The front page of the newspaper in the office today showed Beijing choked with pollution, as over 200 flights had to be canceled. New data also came out that showed the increase in CO2 emissions in 2010 was the largest since the industrial revolution, and China’s lead as worst polluter continues to grow at an astonishing pace. Yet today, I’m feeling slightly optimistic about the future of the air quality as co-workers and friends more frequently discuss the urgency of this issue.

The other day I had the chance to help a person prepare a presentation about the energy saving measures taken in one of Nanjing’s largest public building projects. It will feature solar water heaters that can produce thousands of gallons of warm water for baths each day; rain water collection systems that would reduce the amount of water that would need to be treated by 60%; and an ice-cooled air conditioning system that would save the city millions of RMB each year just in operating costs.

It was when we were discussing the ice-cooled system that the man mentioned something that I hadn’t been aware of (we live on campus and don’t see the bills), Jiangsu province prices energy according to whether it is “peak” or “off-peak” usage. This means that the system will freeze water at night when prices are low, and then use that stored coolant during the day, when energy prices are high. Systems like this help reduce the overall energy demand, allowing Nanjing to power the city with fewer polluting power plants.

According to the director, the cost of the system is less than 5% higher than a traditional A/C system, but the operating cost is 50% lower than the traditional system. This price incentive is only present because of the dual pricing system.

The key bit to understand here is that cities have to build up capacity to meet peak power demands to avoid brownouts. To achieve this, additional power plants run in a kind of stand-by mode waiting for demand to increase. Unfortunately, these plants are not nearly as efficient as regular base load power plants (the ones that run all the time). So reducing peak power demand can greatly reduce CO2 emissions without asking people to make major sacrifices.

This dual pricing method helps offset the growing energy demands of China’s lower-middle class, because this group makes up a large part of the population but is still relatively poor, they are extremely price sensitive (as are many of China’s middle class). This means that a small price difference will lead them to use energy in a drastically different way. The director who was explaining the policy to me pointed out that he sets his watch every night just to let him know when off-peak prices have arrived so he can take a shower (which uses an electric water heater).

The director also told me that the motivation behind these green measures, was that power prices would be climbing higher as China struggles to curb emissions. If they didn’t implement these measures now, the costs later would be much higher.

I believe that the most effective way to get people to use electricity responsibly is to make the economic cost of electricity reflect the cost its production places on society. These costs are no where more visible than in China.

This struck me again last night as I was watching a nature film at a friend’s house. A Chinese friend couldn’t believe that the images of the night skies in the US were real. “In all my life, I’ve never seen stars like that,” he said shaking his head, fully aware of what a sad statement it was.

28 responses to “The silver lining to China’s smog”

  1. This post touches on the very important subject of conservation and restoration of the land that has provided the Chinese with 5,000 years of life. If the CCP doesn’t make preserving its land a top priority, then it won’t be long before it becomes a catastrophic issue for the people of this land. In the last 50 years, China has created more pollution for itself than it has in the last 5,000. I sure hope that the environmental measures you wrote about what you’re seeing in Nanjing are taking place all over China for the world’s sake.

    • Tom says:

      It seems like in the last few months, environmental issues have started to come to the front. While it’s easy to hide human rights abuses, everyone can tell when the air is foul.

      • Interesting you mention that everyone can tell when the air is foul; the following link is to a story about how China’s government refuses to change their air-quality monitoring standards even though the air is horrendous to look at and harmful to breath. Who are they trying to fool? Why wouldn’t they do all they can to curb the rate of pollution spewing into the country’s air? It’s because their making billions of RMB from what produces it.

  2. Tom says:

    While the municipal gov’t keeps trying to claim that it is smog, People’s daily did finally run an article on the health risks of smog

  3. sinostand says:

    In Beijing they have an absurd system for heating that charges you a flat rate for the winter based on the square footage of your home – and you often can’t even control the heat, so people open their windows when it gets too hot. But it’s egalitarian the way it is so they won’t change it. There’s so many little things like this that could chip away at the pollution but don’t happen because of vested interests and the ever-present threat of “social instability”

    • mopedchi says:

      My friend in Beijing said that the central heat is on from November 15th to March 15th without much regard for the actual outside temperature. When it’s cold before or after those dates, people use electric heaters or (gasp!) coal burning heaters, which also cause CO poisoning. Only newer buildings have heating controlled by the occupant.

      • Tom says:

        excellent point, these centrally controlled buildings, are being phased out in places like Beijing, but are still being constructed in places like Inner Mongolia. The post is more pointing to the fact that “green” is starting to be taken into consideration, but is not yet widespread. For instance that only a few provinces/municipalities have started dual pricing.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        In one place I lived in Hebei, the heating/cooling was supplied by the company. The same dates as above determined when heat came on, although if the weather was unusually warm, it was switched off. In the case of cooling, we got air conditioning when the temperature outside hit 30c. In both cases, there were controls in the apartments, although these were not controlled by thermostats. I always appreciated the personal electricity meters in Chinese apartments. It seemed to give a much better sense of waste and, therefore, the possibility for self-monitoriing was greater.

      • mopedchi says:

        Chengdu has a three-tiered pricing for electricity; not sure if it is just for industrial customers or everyone. Our factory has a vacuum hot press that uses a lot of electricity so we try to run it at night.

        After a particularly heavy rainstorm the night before, the general manager of our Chengdu factory said he never noticed the mountains visible on the Western horizon before. He has lived there for 25 years. I’m sure there have been other clear days but I guess it doesn’t come around often enough. During my trips there (8 one-week trips within 2 years), I’ve never seen the sun directly.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Damn. I would kill to get three tiered pricing here in Canada. Or maybe I should be thankful for the cheap single rate system.

  4. M says:

    “In all my life, I’ve never seen stars like that,”
    and where is he from? because while Beijing air pollution is infamously horrible, some days the sky is so clear (that I’m staring at it on my way home fascinated by different positions of constellations) as anywhere in Europe and stars are easily visible and I don’t see any difference compared to small unpolluted villages somewhere in european mountains, so I guess his statement is quite big exaggeration. yes, Beijing air is the worst I’ve experienced in my life (even compared to IN, PH or ID cities) but it’s not always that bad, especially in night, but one thing is for sure, it would be one of the main reasons why to move out from Beijing, because this air will literally kill you over time

    • Tom says:

      Perhaps light pollution has something to do with it too. He’s from Nanjing, but any big city is not going to compare to the clean air and dark skies of the countryside.

  5. Chip says:

    I lived in Beijing for over three years, leaving after the olympics, and I NEVER saw what could be described as a clear night sky.

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    It’s important, I think, to recognize something I described in a different post/comment as economies of pollution exposure. We don’t really want to get into competing claims to the worst pollution, but the pollution problem in smaller centres makes Beijing look clean by comparison. Smaller in this case might refer to other large urban conurbations like Xi’an or Shijiazhuang. It might refer to the quite small counties or even towns and villages in which heavy polluting industries (including power plants) have been located and relocated. For those who were in Beijing during the run up to the Olympics, there was a massive effort to relocate power plants and to eliminate coal burning. All this by way of pointing out that these plants and the new ones that respond to the increased demand tend to be located in exactly the kinds of places that we tend not to see, and that the pollution produced in those places is manifestly worse locally than it was when those power plants were still in Beijing. Also, much of the pollution we see now in Beijing comes from sources that were not so problematic 10 or 12 years ago, private cars chief amongst these. Finally, while the focus on Beijing’s supposed efforts to downplay the pollution problem are important, posts like Tom’s are interesting because they highlight another aspect of this issue, i.e., that China, at least some segments of Chinese society, is genuinely working to deal with the pollution issue. While there are surely powerful groups working to maintain the status quo because their interests lie in its maintenance (something like certain of oil interests in Canada), there are others whose interests like in finding ways out (the kind of ways out that Tom describes). Actually, if you focus too hard on how current interests maintain the status quo, we’ll be blinded to how the new, more environmentally responsible way of doing things is co-opted by the powerful to maintain their privilege. Put simply, billionaires will be just as happy making money through pollution reduction as they are with doing it through environmental destruction. The same goes with the CCP. It’s interests, in fact, lie in maintaining a productive population, not with killing it off.

  7. King Tubby says:

    Advice to wannabe teachers seeking employment in China, and presumably Beijing and it surrounds, is sort of at odds with this post. Try teaching with an extended chest condtion and loss of voice, which is the first experience of all newbies.
    In fact, you should be in court and charged with sino-pandering.
    If you have a four year degree, a criminal clearance and an appetite for application bureacracy, go to South Korea or Vietnam.

  8. Brewskie says:

    Talking about the Beijing airport… I read part of Terminal 3’s roof blew off recently. A $2.5 billion structure completed in ’08; sad.

  9. Lao Why? says:

    Echo-ing a couple of posts:
    I live in Beijing and I have a colleague who lives in an apartment heated by the central system. He says he cannot control the heat and usually opens his windows because his place heats up so quickly.

    A number of coal burning plants in China were retrofitted for clean burning coal technology. Great in theory but when the design engineers left the factory and the managers took over, they failed to buy the premium coal needed to make the technology work (too expensive) and they disabled the smokestack scrubbers that were installed, making the entire retrofit projects useless.

    I’ve lived in BJ for nearly 5 years and, contrary to M’s comment, I can recall only a few times seeing a truly starry night. Maybe you might be able to regularly pick out a couple of stars but forget trying to pick out a constellation on anything other than an exceptional day/night. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area with some Beijing colleagues recently and I thought they would rave about the blue sky and the fact that you could see Mount Tam from 20 miles away. They did not comment too much until a most memorable moment was leaving a restaurant in Marin when they were all stunned by the array of stars they could see. They were truly awestruck.

    • M says:

      well even few days ago I didn’t have problems to see many stars and constellation (?) as Big dipper, maybe you live in light polluted place and it doesn’t have anything to do with air pollution, I don’t see really difference compared to small european cities with clean air in matter of night sky

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Clearly light pollution is also a problem. @Lao Why?, I get not buying the premium coal, but why do the managers turn off the scrubbers? I heard an interesting anecdote once about a guy who made a fortune in the conservation business in China. He was paid a percentage of energy costs saved. The method was to go in and take control of a building’s temp controls and turn them down to a a reasonable level degrees. Once they were taken out of the occupants hands, the money rolled in.

  10. Chip says:

    My wife previously worked for one of the producers of those scrubbers. They didn’t sell unless the local government forced the plant to buy one. After installation, they were never turned on.

  11. Anonymous says:

    @M, perhaps it is light pollution but I have lived in big cities in the US including New York, Chicago and SF and never had an issue with seeing stars in the city due to light pollution. So perhaps it is both. I will make an effort to go outside and look for the stars on a typical day, which is an AQI of about 180.
    By the way, if you can manage to hop the firewall and access the Beijing Air AQI website, you might notice that typically the AQI index goes up in the night time, particualarly after 11PM. I am not sure why this is but people say it is because that is when they let all the heavy trucks into the city.

    I think the scrubber technology is a bit of a headache and the wet technology also generates sludge, which some managers might find a hassle to dispose of.

    • M says:

      I’m leaving work usually quite late at 11-12PM and because of you (readers) I was yesterday during quite windy weather especially observant about sky and I must still stand behind my words that I don’t see any problems with night sky in Beijing compared to any small clean european city/village, I was able to see countless number of stars and Big Dipper

      I hate those stupid trucks, it’s the biggest reason why is China only place in Asia where I’m actually scared to walk on the side of road and cross the road in night when I see that traffic lights which are working 24 hours a day are being respected even at midnight with zero traffic by car drivers, but ignored by dusty heavy trucks doing races

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Thanks, Anon. “Generates sludge”, which probably serves as a reminder than pollution not in the air may be pollution placed elsewhere, c.f., sludge ponds in my home province (

  12. […] fully appreciate the complexity of human choices (“motivation 2.0″ can be anything from lower power prices at night to encourage more environmentally friendly power consumption all the way to demolishing homes and forcing abortions to comply with the One-Child […]

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