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Fog that chokes: smog and the air that we breathe

Image credit: David Evers (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Increasing instances of debilitating smog blanketing major cities worldwide paints an alarming picture for the future of metropolitan living.

December 2016 saw several major cities obscured in a cloud of smog, containing alarmingly high levels of fine particles (PM2.5). For Paris, cold weather and windless, rainless conditions resulted in exhaust fumes, smoke from wood burning and industrial pollutants being trapped in the air. For London, ”radiation fog” plagued the city: a fog that occurs in winter when cool temperatures and clear skies result in heat leaving the ground quickly, with moisture in the air quickly condensing into water and causing a thick fog. However, this natural fog worsened into smog as a wave of pollution produced in neighbouring European countries drifted across to the UK and increased the numbers of particulate matter in the air.

Beijing, now infamous for its smogs, experienced an AQI (air quality index) so high in January 2017 that the Chinese government issued a national red alert―the most severe in its three-tier alert system. According to Professor Chai Fahe, a researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, the biggest contributing factor to the smog in Northern China is the burning of coal. Beijing coal emissions are said to be five times above the national average and are predictably higher in the wintertime as individuals rely on coal for heating.

In early 2016, Mexico City officials declared a Phase 1 smog alert for the first time since 2005. The air pollution there is largely linked to traffic pollution, which has a metropolitan population of approximately 23 million. And whilst ozone pollutants in Mexico City are undoubtedly hazardous for people’s health, research suggests that even more dangerous is the potential for these smaller particles to contain benzene, which can be carcinogenic.

Benzene, or benzopyrene, concentrations in pollution are also a concern in the smogs in Poland; the bad air quality is said to be culpable for 48,000 premature deaths per year in a nation of approximately 38 million. Poland reportedly has benzopyrene concentrations that are seven times higher than the legal norm across Poland―a country that’s long depended on coal, causing poor air quality in major cities like Krakow, Warsaw and Lodz.

All of these smogs require wind or rain to clear the haze, and in a world with an increasingly unpredictable climate, relying on weather changes to clear manmade hazards is insufficient.

Immediate reactions by metropolitan authorities have varied from enforcing restrictions on the number of cars on the roads by number plate, free public transport, or incentives to trade in fuel for electric vehicles. Just last week, London announced the ‘T-charge’, due to come into effect in October, which will see drivers of older cars that emit more pollution paying a fee to drive in central London.

Hardly any of these responses are being backed up by long-term strategies to reduce pollution emissions. Moreover, the majority of these responses by local, state or even national government place the onus on the individual to modify their behaviour in order to reduce pollution.

From personal air purifiers, domestic air quality readers/monitors, newer (and therefore cleaner) cars to face masks, the financial burden of breathing clean air is falling on the individual. And whilst using coal or wood for heating and driving polluting motor vehicles are actions committed by an individual, the persons living in these smog-afflicted metropolitan cities are not capable of reducing their nation’s coal dependency or introducing schemes to scrap diesel fuel―it’s their government that are capable.

Pollution emissions turn natural hazards, like fog, into real, measurable health threats. Authorities in Warsaw warn that high smog levels could be especially dangerous for children, older residents, pregnant women and people with existing health issues. And last April, UK MPs openly declared that air pollution is a ‘public health emergency’.

Energy security cannot come at the cost of physical health, particularly when governments are well aware of viable energy alternatives that are significantly cleaner than energy resources like coal. Any nation that relies heavily on fossil fuels as their primary energy resource needs to make significant efforts to implement renewable alternatives. There is no long-term security in polluting resources like coal; aside from it being a finite source, it threatens social security by increasing the risk of public health emergencies.

Clean energy is critical to ensuring the stability of these major cities, and clean modes of transport and clean heating appear to be the primary obvious targets for authorities. But the longer governments delay in reforming their energy industries, so that the use of clean, renewable sources greatly outweigh the use of fossil fuels, the longer they expose their citizens to preventable and potentially fatal health risks.

Georgia Collins-Jennings is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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