March 10, 2007
Asian Air Pollution Changing Clouds

Once living standards in a country get high enough people in that country start wanting to reduce pollution. The environmental movement did not take off in the United States in the 1960s because college students were taking LSD and mushrooms. The US reached a point where people had enough possessions that other desires and needs became important. Our problem with China, India, and other Asian countries is that they've rising emissions of pollutants from a few billion people with too many years to go before they reach living standards high enough to care about pollution control.

To put it another way: When the United States and Europe went through industrialization they had a lot fewer people doing the industrializing. First off, the US and Europe had a much smaller populations 100 years ago than they do today. Second, even today the US has a population less than a quarter of China's. India's population will reach 1.4 billion in 2025 and 1.6 billion by 2050 or more than 5 times America's population today. While elites in First World fully industrialized countries are worried about carbon dioxide emissions the Chinese and Indians haven't even graduated to the level of caring much about particulates and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen and the like. The quality of air in Chinese cities is getting worse as coal burning power plants get built at a frenetic pace.

I see this as a big and underappreciated problem for the future. Asian industrialization in such large populations pushes billions of people up into the ranks of polluters many years before they reach the ranks of yuppie environmentalists. Here's some new research on the effects that Asian air pollution is having on northern Pacific Ocean weather.

COLLEGE STATION Severe pollution from the Far East is almost certainly affecting the weather near you, says a Texas A&M University researcher who has studied the problem and has published a landmark paper on the topic in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Renyi Zhang, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M and lead author of the paper, says the study is the first of its kind that provides indisputable evidence that man-made pollution is adversely affecting the storm track over the Pacific Ocean, a major weather event in the northern hemisphere during winter. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Zhang says the culprit is easy to detect: pollution from industrial and power plants in China and India. Both countries have seen huge increases in their economies, which means more large factories and power plants to sustain such growth. All of these emit immense quantities of pollution much of it soot and sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, which is carried by the prevailing winds over the Pacific Ocean and eventually worldwide.

Using satellite imagery and computer models, Zhang says that in roughly the last 20 years or so, the amount of deep convective clouds in this area increased from 20 to 50 percent, suggesting an intensified storm track in the Pacific.

Dr. Zhang is also concerned that soot could deposit on northern ice and snow, cause more sunlight absorption, and melting of the ice.

"The general air flow is from west to east, but there is also some serious concern that the polar regions could be affected by this pollution. That could have potentially catastrophic results."

Soot, in the form of black carbon, can collect on ice packs and attract more heat from the sun, meaning a potential acceleration of melting of the polar ice caps, he believes.

"It possibly means the polar ice caps could melt quicker than we had believed, which of course, results in rising sea level rates," he adds.

The speed of Chinese economic development and growth in energy consumption is breathtaking.

In November, the International Energy Agency projected that China will become the world's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, overtaking the United States nearly a decade earlier than previously anticipated. Coal is expected to be responsible for three-quarters of that carbon dioxide.

And the problem will get worse. Between now and 2020, China's energy consumption will more than double, according to expert estimates.

China has hundreds of new coal electric plants planned.

China's emissions regulations that exist are widely ignored.

The problem is that IGCC plants still cost about 10 percent to 20 percent more per megawatt than pulverized-coal-fired power plants. (And that's without carbon dioxide capture.) China's power producers--much like their counterparts in the United States and Europe--are waiting for a financial or political reason to make the switch. In part, what's been missing is regulation that penalizes conventional coal plants. And China's environmental agencies lack the resources and power to make companies comply even with regulations already on the books. Top officials in Beijing admit that their edicts are widely ignored, as new power plants are erected without environmental assessments and, according to some sources, without required equipment for pollution control.

I find the Western emphasis on Kyoto CO2 emissions reductions somehow quaint. It assumes we've moved on from worrying about already conquered problems with conventional ground level pollutants that directly harm health. But the environmental impact of Asian industrialization does not fit with that view.

Technologies that allow emissions reduction have already been developed in the West and those technologies keep getting better due to tightening environmental regulations in Western countries. So in theory China and India could adopt those technologies. But since those technologies raise costs use of them requires a willingness to pay a price. That price is obviously higher than they are willing to pay.

The Asian pollution problem highlights another reason why we'd benefit from the development of ways to cheaply generate energy without use of fossil fuels. If nuclear, solar, wind, and other energy technologies become cheaper than fossil fuels then the industrializing Asian countries would switch to these technologies without first achieving levels of per capita GDP high enough to trigger the development of large scale environmental movements.

Update: Other recent research finds less rain in China's mountains due to pollution.

Jerusalem, March 7, 2007 -- Manmade climate change due to pollution seriously inhibits precipitation over hills in semi-arid regions, a phenomenon with dire consequences for water resources in the Middle east and many other parts of the world, a study by a Chinese-Israeli research team, led by Prof. Daniel Rosenfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has shown.

The Chinese and Israeli researchers showed that the average precipitation on Mount Hua near Xian in central China has decreased by 20 percent along with increasing levels of manmade air pollution during the last 50 years. The precipitation loss was doubled on days that had the poorest visibility due to pollution particles in the air. This explains the widely observed trends of decrease in mountain precipitation relative to the rainfall in nearby densely populated lowlands, which until now had not been directly ascribed to air pollution.

Here is the paper in Science.

Industrialization in countries holding a few billion people creates environment problems on a scale which we have not seen previously. This comes on top of Western pollution.

Update II: An article from the June 11, 2006 New York Times illustrates the scale of China's pollution problems.

In early April, a dense cloud of pollutants over Northern China sailed to nearby Seoul, sweeping along dust and desert sand before wafting across the Pacific. An American satellite spotted the cloud as it crossed the West Coast.

Researchers in California, Oregon and Washington noticed specks of sulfur compounds, carbon and other byproducts of coal combustion coating the silvery surfaces of their mountaintop detectors. These microscopic particles can work their way deep into the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer.

Filters near Lake Tahoe in the mountains of eastern California "are the darkest that we've seen" outside smoggy urban areas, said Steven S. Cliff, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Davis.

The same double digit percentage increase becomes a larger absolute increase each year. Then there's India.

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

To make matters worse, India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants and has a population expected to outstrip China's by 2030.

When China reaches the same total GDP as the United States the Chinese will pollute far more than Americans because China will have much lower living standards per person. At that point China will have less than a quarter the per capita GDP and far less accumulated assets in the form of houses, cars, and gadgets. So Chinese people will be more interested in accumulating assets than in pollution reduction.

The positive correlation between living standards and interest in pollution reduction means we need to accelerate the development of energy technologies that are both cheaper and less polluting. Uptake of technologies that are both cleaner and cheaper does not require development of a big mass environmental protection movement in China and India. Market forces alone will drive the shift away from dirtier technologies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 March 10 08:54 PM  Climate Trends

Wolf-Dog said at March 10, 2007 10:52 PM:

The solution is nuclear energy. Long before we implement the integral fast reactors (breeder reactors that directly burn the long term nuclear waste to make the process at least 60 times more uranium fuel efficient), even the latest generations of the traditional high pressure water reactors have already been made considerably more efficient in terms of burning some of the long term waste, requiring much less uranium fuel. It turns out that it is possible to burn the long term waste at a reasonable cost. There is enough uranium in the world for many centuries, even if we build thousands of reactors.

In fact, if we switch to plug-in hybrids, this would cut the oil usage by 90 % immediately, provided that we use nukes to charge the batteries.

Otherwise, the climate change can cause 400 mph winds all over the world, devastating many cities within less than 20 years. Apocalypse tomorrow... Ironically, the "green" environmentalists who were dogmatically against nukes, will finally agree that the evil nukes can actually save the world:)

Tony (UK) said at March 11, 2007 2:55 AM:

At the moment, we're getting everyone and his dog saying 'do something about the environment', suggesting everything from windtowers through to flight taxes and most stupidly (and predictably from those idiots in the EU), throwing out incandescent bulbs over a two year period to be replaced by long-life energy saving bulbs. And yet, there's those twin 800lb gorillas over in Asia that aren't going to abide by any of those rules - and as your article says, they will far outstrip any pollution/CO2 generation the West will be creating in anything from 2-10 years. They want (must have!) development otherwise they are vulnerable to famines on a biblical scale. What to do?

To my mind, it's obvious - technological solutions, primarily of a nuclear variety for gross production of electricity, but there are also great opportunities for small, smart companies to get in and make a difference - as long as they're allowed to do so. The centralised government edicts so beloved of non-democratic institutions such as the EU have no real role to play. Incentives work, legislation hinders.

As to what the nuclear options are, I'm aware of Pebble bed reactors and 'self contained' reactors based on Thorium, but there's one wild card that has yet to be played - fusion.

Check out the google video of Dr Bussard (yes, that Robert Bussard of Bussard 'ramjet' fame) talking to some google people about work he is involved in. It's about 90 mins long, packed with information and commentary from Bussard on what is was like to work within an environment where "there is only one way to do fusion, and that's with a tokomak". I found it incredibly interesting, and have watched it several times to piece things together.
Key points;

  • This is a non-thermal device - you would take electricity directly from it
  • It is relatively small 1-5m (not the cathedral size tokomaks)
  • There is no neutron radition - none. The system uses a Boron-11 reaction (00:05:04 into the video), which fuses with a proton to give excited C12, which decays into He4 and Be6. As Dr Bussard says (00:05:37) "This is the only nuclear energy-releasing process in the whole world that releases fusion energy as 3 Helium atoms and no neutrons"

It's absolutely fascinating and quite fast-paced.


Robert Schwartz said at March 11, 2007 10:28 AM:

"the polar ice caps could melt quicker than we had believed, which of course, results in rising sea level rates"


Randall Parker said at March 11, 2007 10:31 AM:

Robert Schwartz,

My guess by his name is that English is not his native language. Though it could just be an editing mistake from a university press release writer writing up what he dictated.

birch barlow said at March 11, 2007 11:09 AM:

Ha ha...I was hearing about the problems of global warming, and the rise of Asian polluters in particular, on KFI 640's John and Ken show. I got a good laugh when John said "If the air [on the U.S. west coast] smells like barbequed dog, now you know why." OK that was pretty racist, but I couldn't help laughing--and in this f***ed up world I could use some laughter, especially at other peoples' expense ;>)

Jody said at March 11, 2007 3:18 PM:

Irrelevant to the larger point, but FYI, China has a bigger population than India. (context of Second, even today the US has a population less than a quarter of China's. It is even smaller still than that of India.)

China has 1.3 billion people
India has 1.1 billion people

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2007 3:59 PM:


My mistake. I was thinking about future projections. India's population is going to surpass China's and India is going to hit 1.6 billion at some point, I forget when.

tdean said at March 12, 2007 12:54 AM:

Parker: "The Asian pollution problem highlights another reason why we'd benefit from the development of ways to cheaply generate energy without use of fossil fuels. If nuclear, solar, wind, and other energy technologies become cheaper than fossil fuels then the industrializing Asian countries would switch to these technologies without first achieving levels of per capita GDP high enough to trigger the development of large scale environmental movements."

This statement is really nonsense. I spent a month in China last year and China is moving very quickly to reduce emissions, not as much because it is somehow a luxury but because people are getting sick and dying and getting really pissed off. They are beginning to understand, as we in the US are, that the health costs and lost productivity make it cheaper to clean up pollution than to not do so. And water pollution that contaminates irrigation water is causing riots in the countryside, where the poor folk live, and that is what the Party leaders are most fearful of. We will be waiting for quite a while before renewables become cheaper than coal in China. The only way to achieve reductions in coal emissions is with a moderate carbon tax that gradually increases and use the funds to research and subsidize renewables. You can't pay people not to pollute any more than you can pay criminals not to rob banks. To stop anti-social behavior it must be punished and/or pro-social behavior encouraged. The free market cannot solve pollution problems in general, because it is cheaper to pollute than not to do so, so profit seeking companies and individuals will chose to pollute or be killed in the competitive market place. Just as we make the cost of bank robbing too high for most sensible people, taxes and fines make pollution unreasonable for companies. The "voluntary" programs for emission reductions are a cynical joke and have been proven to be an ineffective gift to big business. The current Newsweek also show that complicated carbon credit schemes are inefficient and barely work. Straight carbon taxes are much easier to impliment and efficient at discouraging pollution and encouraging cleanup. Most people are willing to pay more for clean energy, especially if they are convinced that their children's lives will be better. And that is just as true in China as here. In fact, the traditions of Chinese culture place a much higher value on food purity and maintaining harmonious existence with nature than western culture does. Chinese leaders are moving much faster on cleaning up pollution and adopting clean fuels and technology than the US because they know they have to. They know what happens when the Chinese masses get motivated and pissed off. Just as was the case in the US and Britain, what starts environmental movements is when grandma and the kids start dying during high pollution events.

Lono said at March 12, 2007 1:28 PM:


You just couldn't resist with the cheap shot against psychedelics could ya?

Truth is if more people were actually taking LSD and eating Mushrooms we probably could have had the foresight to avoid this very predictable mess we are now in.

One day society will be advanced enough to handle the technology it has developed - but currently the world is mostly ruled by leaders with the mentality of cave men playing with atomic bombs.

It would be a mistake for us to be so short sighted as to not take a step back and actually allow for a little introspection these days.

Sometimes the path less travelled is far more rewarding.

And - of course - to stereotype US environmentalists as drug addled hippies is wildly inaccurate.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2007 5:30 PM:


I know people who think that drugs made them more enlightened and that the big changes that are centered around the 1960s are due to hippies and drugs and rejection of the establishment. I see that as a misreading of the causes of history.

Mechanization caused womens' liberation. The decline in the economic value of muscle power, the automation of housekeeping, and the general rise in living standards that make it easier for women to survive without men (and throw in the welfare state) caused the womens' liberation movement.

Similarly, the environmental movement was born from rising affluence. Yes, environmentalsts were not drug-addled hippies. Environmentalists were affluent and successful urban and suburban dwellers who wanted to breathe cleaner air and look at prettier rivers and eat less contaminated food. They had satisfied their basic needs and moved on to more advanced needs having to do with esthetics, pleasure, and longer term health.

China is going to go through the stages faster because urban ruling elites are going to push for environmentalism before the masses get much interested. Also, the pollution has gotten so bad that in many areas it causes eye, throat, and chest pains.

Dr. Welburne D. Johnson, II, MD said at March 13, 2007 5:29 AM:

The above situation illustrates why I'm such an advocate of radical tech such as Lunar Solar Power (LSP). After a 15-20 year ramp-up period costing half of what we've spent on "The War on Terror," LSP could provide clean electricity at American percapita amounts for less than 10% of your current electric bill. The other proposed alternative technologies cannot provide the volume of energy to approach developing countries needs.

LSP is so efficient because there is no weather at the collector and the familiar 2.4Ghz transmission frequency from the moon is not interrupted by earth's atmosphere and precipitation patterns.

Barring a breakthrough in other technologies, only LSP can ramp-up quickly enough to mitigate the horrendous pollution from Indian and Chinese development while providing the quality and quantity of energy they desire. Most importantly, this can be accomplished at a price point that all developing countries can afford.

Ad Astra,
(To the Stars)

tdean said at March 13, 2007 8:08 AM:

Parker: "Environmentalists were affluent and successful urban and suburban dwellers who wanted to breathe cleaner air and look at prettier rivers and eat less contaminated food. They had satisfied their basic needs and moved on to more advanced needs having to do with esthetics, pleasure, and longer term health."

This is a perfect example of your typical right wing ideologue trying to portray the environmental movement as the creation of liberal, intellectual tree huggers. In actual fact, the pioneering 1956 British Clean Air Act was the direct result of the 1952 London smog event that killed hundreds of citizents. "During the late 1940s serious smog incidents in Los Angeles and Donora, Pennsylvania raised public awareness and concern about this issue once again. In 1955, the government decided that this problem needed to be dealt with on a national level. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, was the first in a series of clean air and air quality control acts which are still in effect and continue to be revised and amended." It is only when the general populace becomes aware of the injustice of large corporations killing kids and old people indiscriminately and without consequences that politicians are forced to get off their asses to work on justice. Even Nixon was forced to act by public outrage to form the EPA in 1970 and get the Clean Air Act passed.

Parker: "China is going to go through the stages faster because urban ruling elites are going to push for environmentalism before the masses get much interested. Also, the pollution has gotten so bad that in many areas it causes eye, throat, and chest pains."

Again, Parker talking through his butt. In my experience, the common man on the street in China is very aware of the critical long term health effects of bad air pollution. One sees many people in Beijing with surgical masks for some slight protection against particulates. As we were driving by some smokey power plants in western China, I asked my friend to tell her father, a common rail worker, that the costs of health care and lost work was higher than the cost of cleaning up the pollution, even in China. Her father replied, "Yes. That is well known." Just as in the 50s and 60s in the US and Britain, it is the suffering of the common people and their anger at complacent, bought off politicians that gets things moving. They know it's about more than dry scratchy eyes and a sore throat, unlike Parker.

cancer_man said at March 13, 2007 8:10 PM:

It is hard to rely on the IEA since they are so political. Look at their Energy 2030 report. They state that they do not foresee any notable technological changes over the next 25 (TWENTY FIVE) years. Their projections on renewables reflects this is well.

It is at best an amaturish projection...

Can there be 1 in 1000 energy experts who believe there wont be much change from 2020 to 2030, let alone 2005 to 2030?

By the way, China's economy is already almost as large as that of the U.S. (using adjusted prices, or ppp)
China has a GDP/capita of $8000 against the US at $42,000 and this is rapidly closing.

China will have worse pollution in 2010, but they are near a turning point where China will be cleaner in 2020 than today. Just 13 years.

Brian Wang said at March 14, 2007 9:51 AM:

Plan to shutdown dirtiest small plants in China.

Both the USA, China and other coal using countries should aggessively adopt new technology to retrofit old coal plants to control Particulate matters (10 micron and 2.5 micron). No plants should be grandfathered to allow them to be worse polluters.

These best devices and practices should be rolled out to clean up coal plants over 100 times for particulates and a lot for the other pollutants. To improve the capabilities of power plants to capture primary particulates, the Energy Department's Fossil Energy program assisted in the development of devices that combine the best features of both a baghouse and an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) in the same compact enclosure. This device removes at least 99.99% of the solid particles in the flue gas of coal-fired power plants. Other projects developed improvements to the efficiency of existing electrostatic precipitators by installing a device that concentrates particles escaping the ESP and recycling them back to the ESP inlet. Another project developed low-cost, non-toxic conditioning agents that are injected in flue gases before they enter the ESP to make the tiny particles more susceptible to capture.

Here is some other info that shows the problems are well understood and that some action is being taken.

Sulfur Removal during Coal Combustion
Sulfur can be removed during coal combustion (in situ sulfur removal) in industrial and utility boilers by using sorbent-injection techniques or fluidized bed combustion (FBC) technology. The former usually involves injecting dry sorbent (either calcium-based or sodium-based) into the furnace of a boiler. The latter involves firing a suspended fine mixture of coal and sorbent (such as lime). Even though the basic sorbent-injection technique is easy to set up and operate and relatively inexpensive, it is rarely used in China, in part because of a lack of experience with the technology. Non-pressurized FBC boilers are beginning to penetrate the market, especially in the large boiler segment (i.e., 70-ton steam per hour or larger), as domestic manufacturers master the technology.

Flue Gas Desulfurization
Flue gas desulfurization (FGD) is most cost effective in coal-fired power plants. The most widely used FGD technology, wet scrubbers, uses gas/liquid reactions to remove sulfur from flue gas. A cheaper alternative, spray dry scrubbers, is usually used for small utility boilers or older plants. Both technologies have been demonstrated in China and, based on the large proposed investments in the Tenth Five-Year Plan, both appear to be in demand. So far, because of high costs and rigid utility pricing regulations, only a few facilities are operating with FGD technology.

Mike Oudin said at March 15, 2007 7:55 PM:

Weather 101, microscopic dust particles must be present before rain drops can form. What is missing is high enough humidity levels. Try not to believe everything you read. Just because it's in print dosen't mean it's true. Basic science is simple, Earth ecosystems are more complicated than we can ever fully understand.

Randall Parker said at March 15, 2007 11:37 PM:

Mike Oudin,

It is my understanding that if the particulate count is too high then the water forms as many more smaller droplets rather than fewer and larger ones. Therefore the droplets are not big enough to fall all the way to the ground.

Basic science is not simple.

wunsacon said at March 26, 2007 1:39 AM:


>> And yet, there's those twin 800lb gorillas over in Asia that aren't going to abide by any of those rules - and as your article says, they will far outstrip any pollution/CO2 generation the West will be creating in anything from 2-10 years.

On a total basis, yes. But, per capita, a Chinese person and an Indian use far less than you. SO much less that it made NO sense to include them in the Kyoto round. And the Kyoto rounds is supposed to be followed by successive rounds, where participants expect China and India to commit to limits. Were you aware of this? I don't think so, because otherwise you probably wouldn't be complaining so. If you weren't aware of it, your reaction was quite understandable.


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