(A data visualization I made along the way of research)
I started this week’s research by reaching out to experts.
I first reached out to Earth Justice, a team of lawyers fighting for environmental justice. I thought maybe I could start with the solutions of the problem: legislations. I mainly looked at the Coal Program, where the lawyers tried to look at energy and shut down power plants in the U.S.. In one of the statements, the lawyers stated that: “For decades, the coal industry has manage to avoid cleaning up its mess by hiring well-paid lobbyists and lawyers to create and exploit loopholes in our nation’s environmental laws. Such efforts have allowed coal power to appear artificially “cheap”.”
So coal is not actually cheap? I wonder, why do we have the impression that it is? From here, I dug deeper into the production of coal. I went to the EIA (Energy Information Administration) website where I found different types of coal used in the U.S.: anthracite, bituminous coal, sub-bituminous coal, and lignite (ranked from the highest carbon to the lowest). Through my past research, I’ve known that a large number of coal used in trucks in China is lignite, which produces the worst air pollution due to its relatively “young age”.
Intrigued by the diagrams, I went to look at transportation use of energy in China. I found a very useful report (yet I suspect a bit biased) from 2003, Personal Cars and China. 2003 was still before the explosion of car-ownership in China, however the authors are already looking at the issue of future air pollution. A few important points:
– “The real inefficiency lies in the fuel wasted because of urban congestion.” (When stuck in traffic, cars emit more sulfur)
– The use of diesel in trucks:
– “Chinese crude oils have less naphtha, the feedstock for the catalytic reforming process, than most foreign crudes. Therefore, one feature of the Chinese petroleum refining industry is that its catalytic cracking capacity is much greater than its capacities for catalytic reforming and catalytic hydrotreating. The principal characteristics of Chinese gasoline are a high olefin and sulfur content; likewise, Chinese diesel fuel has a high sulfur content. ” (This sounded to me a bit biased by just blaming the problem on the nature of “Chinese crude oil”, when, I think, import is possible?)
Knowing the extreme damage of diesel, I looked more into personal cars in China (which use gasoline) verses heavy duty trucks (which use coal and diesel). The answer to polluted air was as expected:
“Almost 80% of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, emitted from vehicles in China comes from diesel-powered trucks, which represent less than a fifth of the country’s vehicle fleet.” Chinese government, however, have long placed the burden of relieving pollution onto ordinary citizens…
At this point, I felt a bit stuck at the transportation direction. I decided to steer away to other experts. I reached out to Professor George Thurston at NYU, who was a known expert on air pollution and its health impact. In his essays and interviews, he introduced the harm of PM2.5, PM10, and the reasons our bodies can’t defeat them: PM2.5 came from coal fired power plants which contain the highest concentration of coal and all kinds of other metal, and because of the concentration, they are much smaller than the particles our bodies are used to fight with.
Another interesting point I found in Thurston’s views is a shift of cost burden. He said, “the costs are already there because air pollution is causing people to go to the hospital, see their doctor, develop diseases like asthma and cancer. The costs are already visited on the public. What we’re talking about here is moving costs from the public to the polluters.”
I immediately became interested in the concept of “shift of cost burden”. I have always heard people saying “the power plants are the foundation of Chinese economy” (so we can sacrifice the environment). I wonder, what really is the role of economy in China’s air pollution problem?
This question has then opened the Pandora Box for me. I found two pieces of articles particularly interesting: Assessment of China’s virtual air pollution transport embodied in trade by a consumption-based emission inventory and China’s international trade and air pollution in the United States. Both essays argue the relationship between importing and exporting Chinese goods (domestically and internationally) and the emission of pollution, offering the “consumption-based accounting of emissions, rather than just production-based”. The latter especially looked at the impact of U.S. – China trade. “We find that in 2006, 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export. For each of these pollutants, about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export. ” (from Jintai Lin, a professor at Peiking University, another expert I reached out to)
I found this argument fascinating because I see the interaction of systems here. Of course the capitalism/colonialism system and the environmental system are intertwined. Of course there has to be a demand for China’s production (and it turns out that 20% of Chinese manufactured goods go to the U.S.). I also remembered how the British finally “solved” London’s air pollution: they moved their power plants away to other countries… I am now reading Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue, published in 1999, hoping to understand the ties stronger.
A group of Chinese manufactured goods travel across the world, coming to the U.S. They package themselves well so they can fit into the Mid-West malls. They want to be picked up just like any other goods made in China. They have intriguing packaging but they don’t spoil the surprise. Inside, they contain a collection of Chinese stories about the air: like the one with PM2.5, the one with the masks, or the one with the breath of fresh air…