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  April 11, 2017

What's Causing the Winter Haze in China?

Attempts to slow down the existing conditions with emission reduction legislation and return of Eurasia sea ice will take substantial amount of time says Professor Yuhang Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology
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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I'm Kim Brown.

Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his visit to the U.S. for his first face-to-face talks with President Donald Trump. Here's what Trump had to say.

DONALD TRUMP: I think we have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China. My representatives have been meeting one on one with their counterparts from China, and it's I think truly progress has been made. We'll be making a lot of additional progress. The relationship developed by President Xi and myself, I think is outstanding. We look forward to being together many times in the future, and I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.

KIM BROWN: One major problem that will not be going away as a result of Trump's meeting with the Chinese president is climate change, as Trump takes a wrecking ball to regulations to curtail greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. As the U.S. cedes its position as one of the world leaders on climate change action, China is said to be stepping up by cutting coal production as well as increasing production and implementation of renewable energy. It should be noted that China is ranked second behind the U.S. as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Who can forget the images of extreme air pollution in Beijing back in 2013? Now, a groundbreaking recent study has found a direct link between the East China region's terrible haze pollution, which is the worst on record, which was dubbed Airpocalypse and the melting of Arctic icecaps.

With us to discuss this study –- it's titled Arctic Sea Ice, Eurasia Snow, and Extreme Winter Haze in China -– we're joined today by it's lead author, Professor Yuhang Wang, who is a professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia's Institute of Technology in Atlanta. His interests are in pollution emissions, atmospheric and photochemical processing, and their interactions with the climate. Professor Wang, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.

YUHANG WANG: It's good to be here.

KIM BROWN: First, if you could, can you discuss with us the gravity of the haze that the East China plains region in January of 2013 experienced, because as I understand, it did break records. How were people affected by it?

YUHANG WANG: Well, that was one of those events that grabbed attentions from China as well as around the world. It was widely reported in China, and in other countries, and after the extreme haze events, the Chinese government made a lot of changes in terms of curtailing air pollution and enforcing the air quality laws and making new laws. So it's really a watershed event in terms of how people are viewing the haze events in China and how air pollution became one of the largest social issues in China now.

KIM BROWN: Professor, there are up to 1.4 million early deaths every year in China related to air pollution. Has this been increasing or possibly decreasing at all, ever since China has undertaken new endeavors to cut back on fossil fuels and more of a push towards renewables?

YUHANG WANG: Yeah, that's one of the puzzling problems in China, which is that they have put a tremendous amount of effort into curtailing the emissions and you start to see better air quality in the seasons, like in the summer, and in the fall, but you don't really see the problem in winter going away. It's actually just as bad as it was back in 2013. In the last few winters since 2013. And that's one of the issues that we want to address in the paper that we published.

KIM BROWN: What is the direct cause of that level of air pollution? Is it mostly attributed to the burning of coal? What was giving us those stunning pictures of people in gas masks or wearing some sort of protective covering over their nose and face – what was that?

YUHANG WANG: Well, that is... a problem that really has not been solved. There have been many, many studies in China looking at emission sources and fossil fuel obviously is the main source. But as to the question of what fraction of the emissions is due to coal burning and what fraction of that is due to cars and power plants and industry in general, right now it's actually not as clear.

KIM BROWN: And talk to us about more -– I think you alluded to this earlier –- about how the link between pollution, not dispersing in January 2013, you link that to Arctic sea loss.

YUHANG WANG: Right. So what we were looking at, this problem is from a different point of view. The point of view is that, you know, when we look at air pollution levels in a certain region, you're looking at two factors. You're looking at the amount of emissions of the pollutants, and you're also looking at ventilation conditions. So, in this work, we mainly looked at ventilation conditions in the eastern part of China.

And what we found is that, looking at data way back, since the 1980s, the ventilation conditions have been getting worse. In 2013, the winters where the haze was extreme, it actually got to the point where we have never seen that on record in the past in terms of how pollution is being ventilated from eastern China.

So we attributed the Airpocalypse not to some, you know, a large change of emissions, but rather we think it's mainly due to very poor ventilation conditions in that winter.

KIM BROWN: Could Arctic sea loss also be attributed to other such disruption of air circulation in other parts of the globe? Why do we see this in China and not so much or as intensely in other pollution and population-packed areas, even here in the U.S., such as New York City? We see it a bit in Los Angeles, but not nearly to the extent that we saw it in Beijing.

YUHANG WANG: Right. This has to do with, to a large extent, the poverty of the eastern part of China. Different from the United States, where, you know, we do have the north-eastern sort of quarter whereas that's concentrated in California, it's very concentrated with pollution emissions, but those are relatively small areas, whereas in China almost all the industry and the majority of the population are located in the three plains in China which we call Eastern China Plains, and these plains are situation in a topography where the Tibetan Plateau is to the west and the Pacific Ocean is to the east. It's like a mirror image of California, but it's on a much larger scale.

So in wintertime, you really need to have strong winds where very unstable atmosphere conditions to move the pollution out of the region. And that region is also very closely affected by Arctic sea ice, as well as Eurasian snowfalls in the late fall and early winter.

So, when we have these rapid changes of sea ice covers in the Arctic as well as the increasing of snowfall in the ... region, you see a circulation change in China that moves the very strong and cold wind to the east, to Korea and Japan, which leaves the winter in most of Eastern China, sort of warmer in general and it's really calm in general, and as a result of that, the pollutants emitted from those regions just sit there. They cannot be moved out very efficiently and you start to see very high levels of haze like you saw in the news media and as a response to that, people wear masks and do everything they could to try to get away from the haze.

KIM BROWN: Are meteorologists and weather experts and climate experts in China able to give pollution predictions to citizens there to sort of warn them whether or not a given day will be more hazardous, I suppose, than the day before in terms of very dangerous air quality?

YUHANG WANG: Yes. That has been a lot of work going into the forecasting arena, but in 2013, that was actually the beginning of a national network for air pollutants. And that at the time, PM2.5, these are particles with diameters less than 2.5 microns, which makes the majority part of the haze in wintertime, those data are actually not reported... were not reported back in 2013. And now they are routinely being reported.

And each region and in major cities, there are inevitable protection agencies that produce these forecasts that would warn people to put out winter alerts, and things like that for people to try to prevent them going into high exposures if they're sensitive to pollution. Yes, those things are in place now.

KIM BROWN: And, lastly, Professor, as China is now taking some policy steps in terms of reducing the amount of coal production, how much they rely on the burning of these fossil fuels, it's not an overnight process, but they have taken some initial steps. About how long does it take for an area's air quality to show any sign of improvement after the initial process begins to sort of try to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released in a given geographical place?

YUHANG WANG: I think the way I look at it is that all the efforts that we're putting in now is trying to slow down the existing changes. You know, if we look at the trend of Arctic sea ice loss and the increase of Eurasian snow falls, I believe that we saw another record in late 2016, early 2017, as well. So the trend... the change have been picking up speeds, and all the efforts that we've put into emission reductions, most of the effort really is trying to slow down those changes.

So, in other words, it will take a substantial amount of time to actually see a reversal effect for the sea ice to come back and the snows going back to their climatological conditions. That will take a very long time.

So to solve the winter haze problem, really both efforts are needed – the greenhouse emission reductions are needed for the long term mitigation efforts, reducing pollution emissions is needed for immediate effect. Both efforts are needed.

KIM BROWN: The name of the study is titled Arctic Sea Ice, Eurasia’s Snow and Extreme Winter Haze in China. We've been joined by the lead author, Professor Yuhang Wang, who is a professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia's Institute of Technology in Atlanta. If you'd like to access this study, we will have a link underneath this interview on our website at

Professor Wang, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you very much.

YUHANG WANG: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.




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