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Beijing’s smog: a vision of our future?

The images are unforgettable — a huge city, filled with millions of people, with a thick, choking shroud of air pollution obscuring the newly constructed sports facilities for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Those who shake their heads and comment, “That could never happen here,” when they see these images on television or in a newspaper may be surprised to know that it is happening here in Minnesota, even as you read this.

While Minnesota has no cities as massive as Beijing, and we don’t use high sulfur coal to heat and fuel our homes and factories as freely as the Chinese do, our large metropolitan areas do have one thing in common with the smog-clogged capital of the world’s largest nation: In both places, tailpipe exhaust is a major source of air pollution and a serious risk to resident’s health.

Here in the North Star state, vehicle emissions are the single largest source of outdoor air pollution. While our geography and weather often help the exhaust from our vehicles to blow off before air-quality alerts are issued, things are changing. There are more and more vehicles on our roads. Traffic is snarled more often, and for longer periods, as more and more motorists use our already overstrained systems of roads and highways. Increased use of mass transit and cleaner vehicle technologies helps, but can’t keep pace with the sheer number of diesel and gasoline engines pumping pollution into our skies.

Cities like Beijing that allow air-pollution problems to grow out of control face far more serious problems than the current embarrassment Chinese leaders are feeling as the world’s eyes turn to the Olympic Games and its smoggy outdoor venues. Our vehicles, like theirs, produce ozone pollution, particulate pollution and greenhouse gases.

Ozone and children
Children have a higher breathing rate than adults relative to their body weight and lung surface area, meaning a greater dose of pollution is delivered to their lungs than to the lungs of healthy adults in the same environment. A study conducted by the American Lung Association shows that as many as 27.1 million American children age 13 and under, and more than 1.9 million children with asthma, are potentially exposed to unhealthful levels of ozone, a number that is likely even higher under the Environmental Protection Agency’s new outdoor ozone standards.

Dozens of studies link airborne fine particles, such as those found in diesel exhaust, to increased hospital admissions for respiratory diseases, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumonia and heart disease. Such particulates are believed to be a factor in as many as 60,000 premature deaths in the United States every year.

Estimates of the economic and health costs of polluted air vary, according to differing models and theories. We do know that in the case of Beijing, shutting down the factories and ordering at least half the vehicles off the roads during the Summer Games will likely cost millions, if not billions, of dollars in lost work hours.

For the first time in decades, people in Minnesota and other parts of the nation are driving fewer miles and using less gasoline and diesel fuel. Here in Minnesota, use of mass transit is up sharply, with a 16 percent increase in light rail riders and a nearly seven percent increase in Minnesotans catching the bus instead of driving. New hybrid electric-diesel buses are now becoming common sights in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota’s biodiesel requirement signed into law in 2008 has the potential to reduce particulate pollution from diesel engines by 12 percent statewide within seven years.

Minnesotans buying smaller vehicles
As in other parts of the nation, Minnesotans are dumping fuel-guzzling large trucks and SUVs in favor of smaller vehicles, which produce fewer emissions as they burn less fuel.

With more than 350 outlets, Minnesota already leads the nation in E85 infrastructure and sales, which continue to be brisk in Minnesota in 2008. Last year, Minnesota drivers prevented more than 85,000 tons of lifecycle CO2 from entering our air by choosing E85 instead of gasoline.

In southwestern Minnesota, more and more wind turbines are going up as the state continues to be one of the national leaders in wind-generated electricity. Simple measures like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs reduce the amount of coal burned simply to keep the lights on.

As we see images of Beijing’s smog-filled skies, we should think hard about how our own skies will look in a decade or two.  Are we going to continue to seek and find cleaner sources of fuel and energy in Minnesota, or will we succumb to the easy seduction of fossil fuels if prices at the pump continue to drop?  As a state and as a nation, we need to make a choice now, and it won’t be an easy one.

Does Beijing’s dirty air show us a vision of our future, or a warning of what will happen if we don’t change paths? The answer is up to us.

Robert Moffitt is communications director for the American Lung Association of Minnesota, based in St. Paul.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/07/2008 - 09:16 am.

    Good questions, John. Geography and weather are major factors in outdoor air pollution, so simply compairing the Twin Cities to other similar-sized urban areas may not give a complete picture.

    That said, I think it is safe to say that the Twin Cities (and Minnesota as a whole) stacks up pretty well for clean air, compared to many other similar sized cities. That wasn’t always true. About a decade ago, the Twin Cities was in “non compliance status” for EPA regulations on carbon monoxide pollution during the winter months. The state responded by passing the nation’s first statewide E10 (10 ethanol blend in all gasoline to make it burn cleaner)requirement, the CO levels in Twin Cities are now in line with federal guidelines, even as many more cars and trucks are on our roads today than 10 years ago.

    The trend of driving less is very new, and has only recently been verified. The other trends I mentioned (longer commutes, more vehicles on the road) have been building for decades, so yes, there is a big gap in time frames, as you suggested. We will watch for changes in emissions levels very eagerly!

    I did not intend this op/ed to be alarmist in tone, but rather to use the well-publized air quality problems in Beijing as an example of how bad air pollution can become, and how quickly it can happen. Beijing’s skies were once as blue and clear as our own in Minnesota, and the change from streets filled with cyclists to streets crowded with cars and trucks happened with remarkable speed.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 08/07/2008 - 04:20 pm.

    Robert, thank you!

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 08/06/2008 - 12:57 pm.

    I won’t debate the point that tailpipe emissions are a major source of pollution. Nor will I debate the necessity of reducing emissions whenever feasible.

    What *would* be useful, however, is some comparison of how Minneapolis/St. Paul compares against other metropolitan areas of similar size.

    In addition, there is a contradiction between your comments in the third paragraph and the eighth paragraph (in an effort to conserve electrons, I’m choosing to not cut and paste). To paraphrase, the third paragraph talks about more vehicles, more traffic snarls, etc. while the eighth says we are driving fewer miles, more use of mass transit, etc.

    Would it not be reasonable to assume that if the number of miles driven in total is going down, emissions would too? So which is it? Or are the timeframes not similar?

    It’s a worthwhile topic, but some clarifications would be nice.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/08/2008 - 10:22 am.

    “As we see images of Beijing’s smog-filled skies, we should think hard about how our own skies will look in a decade or two. ”

    “tailpipe exhaust is…..a serious risk to resident’s health.”

    Mr. Moffitt is known for tossing out completely unsubstantiated and wildly overheated statements such as these into the wind so often that it is tempting to flatly state that his appearance immediately poisons the air of any reasoned discussion.

    But like the majority of Moffitt’s amphigory, that would constitute nothing more than the opinion of one man.

  5. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/08/2008 - 11:35 am.

    Swiftee! I haven’t heard from you since we went toe-to-toe on the smoking bans! Nice to hear from an old friend. Say “hi” to the rest of the gang for me.

    Hope you are doing well. Did you go to Sturgis this year?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/08/2008 - 01:20 pm.

    Sturgis? I thought you were comparing Minnesota’s clear blue sky with the reality of Beijing’s Communist paradise.

    Bob, I would have had to step down off the curb to have gone “toe to hairline” with you.

    You see, my arguments don’t depend on my ability to ignore the truth and to deftly change the subject when cornered….”toe-to-toe”?

    No, Bob; not in your wildest dreams.

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