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Photo of a traffic policeman signaling to drivers during a smoggy day in Harbin, China.

A traffic policeman signals to drivers Monday in Harbin, China, where smog grew so thick that roads had to be closed. Winter heating systems fired by coal are being blamed, in part, for the crisis.

Photograph by China Daily, Reuters

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published October 22, 2013

Choked with smog that shut down roads, schools, and its main airport, the city of Harbin (map) this week offered a striking reminder that China has a long way to go in addressing the hazards caused by its dependence on coal.

Visibility in the northeastern city of more than 10 million people reportedly was reduced in places to less than 65 feet (20 meters) as coal-fired heating systems ramped up for the winter months. Officials also pointed to farmers burning crop stubble and low winds as additional causes for the pollution crisis.

Harbin, also known as the Ice City, hosts an ice and snow festival every year that features displays of elaborate ice sculptures. But the city's frigid temperatures, which can reach -40ºF (-40º C) in winter, mean that residences usually need heating for six months of the year. As part of a national effort to reduce energy intensity, Harbin in 2010 spent $1.1 million to retrofit 21 million square feet (2 million square meters) of residential buildings—adding five new layers of wall insulation, as well as better windows and roofing. (See related story: "In China's Icy North, Outfitting Buildings to Save Energy.")

But building retrofits can go only so far in a country where coal fuels 70 percent of the energy consumption. China, the world's largest consumer of coal, is also the world's leader in carbon emissions. (See related interactive map: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.") Those emissions have stark consequences for the country's residents, a fact highlighted in two recent studies that measured the health impacts of fossil fuel emissions.

Deadly Pollution Problems

The level of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in Harbin's air this week reportedly reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, exceeding the World Health Organization's daily target level by a factor of 40. While Harbin's predicament is alarming, it is not isolated; many cities in Northern China, including the capital Beijing and neighboring Tianjin, rank among the most polluted in the world. In January, Beijing made headlines when its air quality got so bad that it went beyond the very top of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in July found that air pollution has caused the loss of more than 2.5 billion years of life expectancy in China. Because of a government policy that provided free coal for home and office heating to residents of the north from 1950 to 1980, life expectancy there was 5.5 years shorter than in southern China in the 1990s. That disparity persists today, researchers say, almost entirely because of heart and lung disease related to air pollution from the burning of coal. (See related story: "Coal Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows.")

Bill Chameides of Duke University's Nicholas School for the Environment led two air quality studies in China's Yangtze Delta between 1995 and 2004. "Hearing about Harbin's smog problems, I couldn't help but think back [to those studies]," Chameides said via e-mail Tuesday. "It was really bad then. Everywhere I went in China the sky was covered with a smoggy, foggy gray blanket. A cab driver told me, tongue in cheek, that while dogs howl once a month at night at the moon, in China they howl once a month during the day-because that's how often the sun comes out."

A separate study released last month found that if the world took action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more than 500,000 lives could be saved globally each year. The air and health quality benefits for East Asia alone would add up to between 10 and 70 times the cost of reducing emissions by 2030, researchers said. (See related story: "Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says.")

Growth, at a Cost

The challenge to improve heating infrastructure and improve efficiency for millions of square feet within existing buildings is made even more formidable by the fact that China is currently adding some 22 billion new square feet (2 billion square meters) of construction per year. At the same time, living standards are increasing, creating demand for ever more power; and coal remains subsidized, meaning that consumers don't see the fuel's true cost in their heating prices. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Home Heating.")

China did earlier this year announce a ban on new coal plants in three industrial regions near Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, citing air quality problems. (See related blog post by Chameides: "China Puts Kibosh on New Coal Plants (in Three Regions).")

The government has also approved at least nine large-scale projects that would turn coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG), a strategy that may help ease China's air pollution woes but create more environmental problems than it solves. "In terms of mitigating smog in eastern China, replacing coal with SNG indeed can help quite a bit," said Chi-Jen Yang, a researcher at Duke, in an e-mail Tuesday. Yang co-authored a recent paper on the topic in Nature Climate Change, noting that SNG produces greenhouse gas emissions seven times that of conventional natural gas while requiring vast amounts of water.

"I understand that to the Chinese government, smog is probably more urgent than global warming, which explains their policy [favoring SNG]," Yang said. "I am just warning that their near-sighted policy will lock them into a long-term unsustainable path of development."

Yang's warning underscores a larger truth echoed by Chameides: Though China's energy decisions are being felt most keenly right now by those in Harbin and cities like it, the longer-term effects reverberate far beyond its borders. "When you think about how important China's economy is to the U.S. consumer, indeed to the whole world," said Chameides, "China's pollution is a threat to us all."

—Additional reporting by Marianne Lavelle and Te-Ping Chen

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

This story has been changed from a previous version to correct the conversion of -40ºF to Celsius.

17 comments
Charlie Dams
Charlie Dams

If China really wanted to get rid of this smog, China's government should start implying rules in total ban to coal  operating heating systems, specially their industries and transportation.  Replacing coal with SNG doesn't really help in the long run but its a better alternative for now. SNG's produce mass green house gasses similar to coal that contributes to global warming. But for now the gasses that have been exposed in the air can have serious threats to the human body, business and the environment. Gasses like O3, ground ozone have very chilling effects that could cause death and eliminating this is important.


As an environmentalist student i believe that population has a key role to this countries problem and this is magnified by the current state of the country which has been rapidly developing over the years that caused it to be dependent to cheap and  abundant resources such as coal. Id suggest that China should really consider and invest in renewable and clean energy that wouldn't  compromise its economic growth.

Heebin Lim
Heebin Lim

Due to usage of CFCs and combustion of fossil fuels, there are more particulate matters that significantly affect visibility. This does not affect their visibility only but also their health and environment. Since China is developing country with so many factories and industrial movement, it's becoming more serious. Temperature, number of vehicles on and off the road and population size are also relevant factors that contribute to creation of smog. Also, the climate itself might have significant role because during winter season, ice clouds can be formed and this may result in introducing more chemical reaction happening in the atmosphere, ends up creating more ozone molecules in the atmosphere, which is considered as bad ozone.


On the positive side, I believe Chinese government can handle this situation with regulations and laws. When I visited China during Olympics season in 2008, it was clean due to strict standard that Chinese government implemented. I'm sure that if they find the urgent need, they can possibly do the same thing again. Another good example can be one child policy which helped rapid decrease in population growth in China.

John Park
John Park

How can this problem get serious that even the roads have to be closed? Seriously coal-fired heating systems is becoming a global issue already. Even though I haven't been in China, and I know that not ALL of China has these problems but it really should not happen. It is just for ourselves to live a comfortable life, but that will affect the future generations. Did you know that Ozone is actually formed very easily in the atmosphere? Just when UV radiation splits oxygen molecules, the split oxygen atoms will bond to another oxygen molecules, then you have ozone. By this, ozone depletion occurs. It allows more UV light to reach the surface, then it can contribute to the global warming. All this thing is basically the smog and pollution from combustion of coals and fossil fuels. There are still many alternate sources we can use to reduce the problems. It just takes effort and time, but it will surely make the world a better place to live in.

Charlie Dams
Charlie Dams

Although I've only been to China once, I can''t deny that the pollution in that country needs a serious attention from the government and China's people. From past experience my first visit to Beijing i could hardly breathe and see anything, i cant imagine how it would be there now since its been 2 years. The collaboration of China's people and its government will, will really be way, but like everything its easier said than said. The thing is i don't really see the government having a problem since its a communist country and like the Olympic Beijing, the government could pull off something extraordinary in a matter of months, now how about  this time the government try that similar methods to the pollution that's everywhere.

JOE Chen
JOE Chen

still remember the nuclear pollution in The Simpsons Movie? Drop a dome and isolate it?

孟 阔
孟 阔

As a Chinese who come from northeastern Shenyang ,I know the difference between the explaining of our government and Na Geo ' s.But I donot know to trust which. And I have no idea about whether the policy will make its effect on the situation which we face now. 

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Have you noticed how dirty your vehicle gets these days? How when you wash your hair or body how dirty the water gets? Air pollution is all around us, and we are breathing it in creating for ourselves lung problems that get worse over time. The pollution in China does not remain in China, it circulates in the air and reaches us.  An all out effort must be made to harness the energy we need from the SUN.   Isn't there one scientist out there who has thought about creating a magnifying glass like structure that is put in orbit focusing the suns energy on one specific place and creating electricty from the process?  Another object can be placed in a specific orbit, at the right distance to block the suns rays and thus control the cooling of the earth.    Do our scientists have no imagination...no thought processes that enable them to THINK, TO CREATE? 

Isis Lei
Isis Lei

I am studying  in Beijing and I have experienced smog for many times. I do think it is terrible but it is not so bad as u think. The cab driver's words are just exaggerated to arouse people's awareness but it is not the truth itself. After all the government should take the responsibility and handle the problem immediately.

Ning Yu
Ning Yu

Im in Shenyang China,bad weather yestoday

Leah Sg
Leah Sg

-40 is the same whether Fahrenheit or Celsius. -40 F=-40C

Where is the proofreader?

yml bos
yml bos

China is simply going to buy up more oil rights (fields, refinery), and transport the oil to China instead. Where money can buy, China will spend it because it has no other choice. China does not have the luxury to halt or even slow down the economy progress (and with the huge energy needs and drastic environmental impact) while dealing with environmental issues. Afterall, the legitimacy of the communist rule now rests solely on its ability to produce economic gains and better the livelihood of its denizens. 

Eric Tremblay
Eric Tremblay

US coal companies planning big increases in coal exports to Asia better reassess how big that demand will remain in the years to come. 

Coal is better left in the ground.

Emma Vceego
Emma Vceego

it's an emergency issue in Chinese. during the process of developing, many organizations get the profit in sacrifice of environmental protact. some are hoping that making money first and environmental protect comes after. it's high time to change the thinking.

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