China’s smoggiest city closed its schools Wednesday due to its sixth straight day of extreme air pollution.
Since last week, a pollution-induced choking miasma has left more than 460 million gasping for air across most of northeast China. The country implemented an emergency anti-pollution plan for the 10.7 million who live in the city of Shijiazhuang. Chinese government officials have already used the emergency plan to shut down factories and take cars off the road.
“Over the last 48 hours, levels of PM 10—a measure of particulates in the atmosphere—have been literally off the charts in the city, repeatedly maxing out at 999,” states an Associated Press summary. “Levels of the smaller PM 2.5 particles, tiny enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and thought to be a major contributor to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, reached as high as 733, more than 29 times the World Health Organization’s daily recommended maximum of 25.”
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Joint Program on the Policy of Global Change found that China’s pollution woes are largely due to the country’s reliance on coal power. China seems to be planning on doubling down on coal. Of the 2,400 coal-fired power plants under construction or being planned around the world, 1,171 will be built in China.
MIT scientists recommended that China replace coal with natural gas. Natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollutants of coal power, and is already cheaper than coal in many locations in the U.S. due to fracking.
“Our previous work put an estimate of more than $100 billion in annual costs to the Chinese economy from air pollution impacts,” Dr. Sergey Paltsev, an MIT researcher who coauthored a study on how the country could slash air pollution, said in a press statement. “Developing natural gas infrastructure and promoting natural gas use is an important option to address deteriorated air quality and improve living standards.”
China is working to replace coal with cleaner-burning natural gas. As a first step, the government aims to boost the share of natural gas in its primary energy supply from 6 to 10 percent by 2020. However, China doesn’t have as favorable of geology for natural gas fracking as America, so it may need to import large quantities.
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