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Pollution in Asia

November 28, 2008


Most people are aware that some Asian countries are suffering from serious environmental pollution. During the recent Beijing Olympics, some athletes were concerned about the onerous air quality in China’s capital that often blots out the sun and how it would affect their performance. To try and reduce the pollution, the Chinese government forced some businesses to shut down during the games. Although people were concerned for the athletes and for the impressions that would be left with visitors, the larger concern is for those who must live day in and day out with that pollution. The kind of pall that hangs over many large Asia cities has been labeled a “brown cloud.” A recent United Nations’ study reports on the extent of pollution being faced in Asia [“U.N. Reports Pollution Threat in Asia,” by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, 13 November 2008].

“A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations. The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin and North America. But they are most pronounced in Asia, where so-called atmospheric brown clouds are dramatically reducing sunlight in many Chinese cities and leading to decreased crop yields in swaths of rural India, say a team of more than a dozen scientists who have been studying the problem since 2002.”

Not surprisingly, the report identified Beijing as one of the world’s most polluted cities because is is often “shrouded in a thick, throat-stinging haze that is the byproduct of heavy industry, coal-burning home heaters and the 3.5 million cars that clog the city’s roads.” The problem, however, is widespread.

“The brownish haze, sometimes in a layer more than a mile thick and clearly visible from airplanes, stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to the Yellow Sea. In the spring, it sweeps past North and South Korea and Japan. Sometimes the cloud drifts as far east as California. The report identified 13 cities as brown-cloud hot spots, among them Bangkok, Cairo, New Delhi, Tehran and Seoul, South Korea.”

Chinese leaders, of course, are well aware of Beijing’s problems because they live there. Although they know something must be done, they slow to act both in Beijing and elsewhere.

“Last month, the government reintroduced some of the traffic restrictions that were imposed on Beijing during the Olympics; the rules forced private cars to stay off the road one day a week and sidelined 30 percent of government vehicles on any given day. Over all, officials say the new measures have removed 800,000 cars from the roads. According to the United Nations report, smog blocks from 10 percent to 25 percent of the sunlight that should be reaching the city’s streets. The report also singled out the southern city of Guangzhou, where soot and dust have dimmed natural light by 20 percent since the 1970s.”

In what surely must be one of history’s great ironies, researchers claim that brown clouds may “be temporarily offsetting some warming from the simultaneous buildup of greenhouse gases by reflecting solar energy away from the earth.” They go so far as to claim that “similar plumes from industrialization of wealthy countries after World War II probably blunted global warming through the 1970s. Pollution laws largely removed that pall.” Scientists are not saying that pollution is good or that we shouldn’t worry about the brown clouds. The health costs of pollution can be staggering as can the clean-up costs; but the study concentrates on the environmental costs.

“Rain can cleanse the skies, but some of the black grime that falls to earth ends up on the surface of the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of water for billions of people in China, India and Pakistan. As a result, the glaciers that feed into the Yangtze, Ganges, Indus and Yellow Rivers are absorbing more sunlight and melting more rapidly, researchers say. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, these glaciers have shrunk by 5 percent since the 1950s and, at the current rate of retreat, could shrink by an additional 75 percent by 2050. ‘We used to think of this brown cloud as a regional problem, but now we realize its impact is much greater,’ said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who led the United Nations scientific panel. ‘When we see the smog one day and not the next, it just means it’s blown somewhere else.’ Although the clouds’ overall impact is not entirely understood, Mr. Ramanathan, a professor of climate and ocean sciences at the University of California, San Diego, said they might be affecting precipitation in parts of India and Southeast Asia, where monsoon rainfall has been decreasing in recent decades, and central China, where devastating floods have become more frequent. He said that some studies suggested that the plumes of soot that blot out the sun have led to a 5 percent decline in the growth rate of rice harvests across Asia since the 1960s.”

Jacobs concludes his article by briefly mentioning the effects that pollution can have on local populations.

“For those who breathe the toxic mix, the impact can be deadly. Henning Rodhe, a professor of chemical meteorology at Stockholm University, estimates that 340,000 people in China and India die each year from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that can be traced to the emissions from coal-burning factories, diesel trucks and wood-burning stoves. ‘The impacts on health alone is a reason to reduce these brown clouds,’ he said.”

One of the hopes of those in the development community is that emerging market countries will begin to see the light (literally) when they consider how to grow their economies. The ideal, many believe, is for emerging market countries to leapfrog old technologies and begin industries using state-of-art equipment and methods that are more environmentally friendly. Countries like China and India have argued that such a course of action is not possible because new technologies are too expensive. One of the benefits of the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ approach is that it can be used to demonstrate to emerging market countries that adopting best practices and international standards are in its best interests both short- and long-term. In countries where people are considered cheap and equipment considered expensive, the long-term consequences to local populations are often overshadowed. That is one of the reasons that I encourage emerging market countries to invest their human capital. When they realize that their people are not cheap resources to be exploited by natural treasures to be protected, development can take a much different path. Development-in-a-Box was built on the premise that making avoidable mistakes is both foolish and costly. And there is no more foolish path than trading the long-term health of a nation for short-term economic gains when better alternatives exist.


One Asian country that has created technologies to deal with pollution is Japan. According to Blaine Harden, “Japan burns more garbage in the heart of its big cities than any developed country” [“Japan’s Trash Technology Helps Deodorize Dumps in Tokyo,” Washington Post, 18 November 2008]. Harden begins his article in Tokyo at the Toshima Incineration Plant.

“It doesn’t smell like a dump. If it did, there are a quarter-million neighbors to complain about Tokyo’s Toshima Incineration Plant, which devours 300 tons of garbage a day, turning it into electricity, hot water and a kind of recyclable sand. … The Toshima plant is one of 21 factory-size incinerators that operate around the clock amid Tokyo’s 12 million densely packed residents. Remarkably, this does not create a big stink, literally or politically. ‘There is no smoke or odor coming from the incinerators,’ said Hideki Kidohshi, a garbage analyst at the Japan Research Institute.”

Because land is a precious resource in Japan, they have a long history of burning as well as burying waste. As a result, Japan faced its own pollution challenges in the past.

“All this burning raised dioxin levels in Japan to dangerously high levels in the 1990s, but technological advances have since corrected the problem. ‘All in all, the dioxin issue has been conquered,’ Kidohshi said. Besides not being smelly, smoky or deadly, Japan’s urban incinerators are often not ugly. Indeed, many are architecturally significant and some are social hotspots. The renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi, designer of the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, also designed Hiroshima’s incineration plant, an eye-catching tourist attraction that the architect has called ‘my museum of garbage.’ Here in Tokyo, about 186,000 people a year frequent the Toshima Incineration Plant. These visitors, most of whom live in the neighborhood, come to swim and exercise in the plant’s handsome and affordable fitness center. The center was added to the incinerator complex when it was built in the late 1990s to appease neighbors appalled by the prospect of millions of tons of garbage being burned in their back yard. Those neighbors now swim in a pool heated by burning garbage. They work out in rooms lighted by electricity generated from a steam-driven turbine linked to the furnace that burns the garbage. Surplus electricity, enough for 20,000 homes, is sold into the grid. The complex also has a health clinic for the elderly. Ash from the incinerator is melted into a sandy slag used in asphalt, bricks and concrete. All these outstanding achievements in incineration are the result of grim necessity — and massive government spending.”

There, of course, is the rub for emerging market countries who can’t afford “massive government spending.” The developed world needs to bring down the costs of technology so that emerging market countries can afford it and leapfrog the most dangerous and polluting stages of development. One way to that is to get more developed countries to adopt more environmentally friendly technologies and habits.

“Japan is small, mountainous and densely populated. Landfills near Tokyo and elsewhere are filling up fast, despite the relatively abstemious garbage-producing ways of the Japanese, who throw out half as much garbage per day as Americans do. Sorting trash is a serious civic responsibility here. In the eastern Japanese town of Kamikatsu, residents are required to compost all food waste and sort other garbage into 34 different bins for recycling. In Tokyo, the rules are less onerous but far from lax. Bottles and cans must be rinsed before being placed in containers for curbside pickup. A rubber hose cannot be tossed out until it is cut into pieces measuring less than 20 inches. Milk and juice containers must be flattened before discarding. Neighbors notice — and often complain — if someone ignores the rules. Lack of landfill space pushed Tokyo officials last year to expand the list of household trash that can legally be placed in the incinerator-bound “combustibles” bin that every householder keeps in the kitchen, along with bins for recyclables and non-combustibles. The garbage that can now be burned includes soiled plastic, plastic foam and rubber.”

There is no doubt that the effort required to recycle waste material can be tedious and onerous. There is also no doubt that landfills are filling and waste streams will continue to grow as millions of more consumers are brought into the middle class as globalization helps lift them out of poverty. When recycling becomes a way of life and clean technologies help clear the skies, people will forget the burdens and appreciate the benefits. During the current international talks aimed at stimulating the global economy, the future should not be ransomed for the present.

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