Choking smog and pollution in Beijing last month caused drivers to light headlamps at midday, forced residents to stay indoors – and led to a first-ever “red alert” about the air from the Chinese government.
Schools closed. The government curtailed use of vehicles. Factories were temporarily shut down. All of it was an effort to restore bluer skies as the choking conditions prompted a new round of pledges from the Chinese about cleaning up what has become one of the world’s notorious places for bad air.
It’s not just the Chinese who are concerned. A team of scientists in the Research Triangle Park is also interested in solving the persistent pollution problem.
The RTP group is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards. The group is led by Dale Evarts of Durham, who, working under a formal agreement between the Chinese and the U.S. governments, is trying to help China clean its air. He said the group focuses on international hotspots, with about one-fourth the effort focused on China.
In many ways, Evarts said, the air in parts of China today is like areas of the U.S. in the 1930s and ’40s – or industrialized Europe before that. Pittsburgh’s smog in the 1940s was especially infamous. And the “London fog” of old was really a pea soup smog.
Evarts said the U.S. started working with China around the turn of this century. The formal agreement was renewed late last year.
The RTP team was critical in helping the Chinese deliver clean air for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – teaching its air officials about how the U.S. uses regional models to study and determine effects on broad areas. The Chinese had been much more city-centric in looking for solutions. This regional approach is continuing and under constant refinement, Evarts said.
The RTP team has been instrumental in producing and providing data about air quality to the public, and it has led to a level of accountability that did not previously exist.
The EPA team also is working on ways to change power and transportation emissions – with an eye on not harming economic growth. High-level Chinese officials said in interviews that they understand now that environmental changes must occur, and the shifts will have the effect of slowing its economy.
The U.S. is using the work to get a better understanding of the sources, formation and impacts of air pollution.
Much of the air project has the U.S. sharing what it has learned in cleaning up air here, from smog in summer to cleaning the output of coal-burning power plants.
“One of the key lessons we’ve learned, and messages we delivered, was that you can grow your economy and have better and better air quality at the same time,” Evarts said.
EPA officials say the U.S. economy has tripled in size since 1970 while emissions of key pollutants have been reduced by almost 70 percent.
Evarts said the work is important because air pollution “knows no boundaries and can travel great distances” and can harm people.
“It is a significant public health threat that needs to be addressed,” he said.