Smog has been a familiar phenomenon in Western capitals, starting with London in the 1950`s and ending with New York, San Francisco, Mexico, Sao Paulo and Singapore in more recent years. But since 20 years it has ceased to be a serious health issue in most countries, China being one of the major exceptions.
Its causes are high emissions, especially NO2, mixed with micro particles that produce a toxic mix provoking respiratory troubles.
Industry and power plants operating on coal together with dense traffic are the villains of the game!
What distinguishes the January 2013 smog situation in China from previous ones is its longer duration of more than 10 days and wider geographic scope, covering up 1.3 million square km or 13 per cent of China.
China knows what to do to prevent a recurrence of serious smog situations: It must substantially reduce coal-fired energy generation and heavy manufacturing in big cities and suspend passenger car traffic within the cities concerned, whenever smog exceeds safe WTO standards.
Fighting smog is in China’s vital interest to prevent respiratory diseases and a poor environmental policy record. If smog were to happen more often it will make China less attractive as a tourist destination.
Heavy Smog in China reflects an excessive use of coal for households, industry and power generation.
China therefore needs to focus on more efficient use of energy, e.g. by providing for better thermal insulation of buildings and tougher CO2 emission standards for cars and trucks.
In parallel it should follow the US example and switch most of its fossil energy consumption to gas. It is linked to Central Asian gas and possesses huge reserves of shale gas. Switching to gas will rapidly put an end to smog and, by the same token, substantially reduce Chinese excessive green house gas emissions.
Last not least, the country would be well advised to adopt a Clean Air Act of the type both USA and UK have enacted last century and to endow itself with an Environment Protection Agency as powerful as that of the USA.
Brussels 30.01 2013 Eberhard Rhein