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The smog in Beijing is so toxic that residents have been advised not to venture outside.

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Frontline Online: Why China needs dissuading from a dash-for-gas energy solution

January 21st, 2013

by Lorna Howarth

The Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on news and action from the environmental frontline

Beijing’s smog can be seen from space which means ultimately, it affects us all

Already known as the ‘Smog Capital’ of China, Beijing is currently experiencing a spike in deadly PM-25 particulates emitted from vehicles and coal-fired power stations, with levels over 20 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) safe limit.

The city is now on orange alert with residents advised not to venture outside. Unlike other developed cities, Beijing saw exponential growth in car ownership before it phased-out coal-fired power stations, leading to high smog levels and residents resorting to wearing face masks and cracking jokes about making a fortune from selling canned fresh air.

A recent Weibo ‘tweet’ stated, “The greatest distance in the world is not that between life and death, but when I can’t see you standing next to me on the street”. 

But of course, this is no laughing matter – Beijing’s smog can be seen from space and ultimately, affects us all.

The Chinese government, which has garnered much praise of late for its drive towards renewables, is scheduled to phase-out coal-fired power stations in Beijing district by the winter of 2014, making it the first coal-free city in China – however, the power stations will be switching to combined heat and power (CHP) from natural gas.

Debate about China’s gas supplies rumbles on, with suggestions that unconventional natural gas (shale gas produced from the ‘fracking’ process) will have to become part of the mix if China is to successfully reduce its dependence on coal.’s Founder, the environmentalist Bill McKibben warns China against a dash for shale gas, suggesting that it should learn lessons from America’s experience (dogged as it is with protests, earthquakes, water contamination and figures suggesting that shale gas extraction and combustion is more harmful to the environment than coal). McKibben urges China to continue instead down the route of renewable resources.

One major problem for China to extract shale gas is the amount of water required to fracture the shale beds and release the gas. Most of China’s shale gas reserves are in the arid far-west where water availability is limited. This raises further questions about the ‘water footprint’ of fracked gas.

The International Energy Agency has said that a gas-dependent world would still have 660ppm CO2 – which is far too high given that Bill McKibben and other eminent ecologists believe 350ppm remains the ceiling for a liveable planet.

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing ageny:

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