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Here's where most of China's toxic cloud of smog comes from

Published by Business Insider on Tue, 08 Dec 2015

Air pollution in China has been growing to epic proportions in the past decade.A harmful cloud of smog measuring the size of California hung over China this week as the city of Beijing declared its first ever "Red Alert"a serious public health warningdue to the swelling noxious cloud.Schools were shut down and residents were cautioned to limit outdoor activities.On Dec. 7 alone, levels of minuscule cancer-causing particles in Beijing's air crept to about 20 times the limit that the World Health Organization deems safe. The levels in China during one weekend in November were about 50 times WHO's limit.So what's to blame for this billowing plume of pollution' Coal.In fact, China is the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases from coal, a fact easily illustrated by this set of graphics compiled by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and explained in a post by Tim Urban on his blog "Wait But Why."The data in the graphics are compiled from 2007, so the numbers are likely to be slightly different today. A reportfrom early November suggests that China burns 17% more coal per year than its government had reported. This means that it releases nearly a billion tons more carbon dioxidea potent greenhouse gasinto the atmosphere than was previously thought, The New York Times reports.While the numbers in the chart below may be an underestimate, it still makes an important point.Although the graphic looks confusing, it's actually a shockingly simple illustration of the different types of energy we use across the globe, and where that energy goes. This particular snapshot is of the world's consumption of energy in 2007.The left side of the graphic is all of the world's energy sourceswhere we get our fuel. The lines in the middle representthedifferent sectors that use the energy, and the far right is where it goes. Rejected energy is energy that doesn't actually get used but escapes along the way, mostly as heat.If you zoom in to coal consumption, you can see that the entire world used 130,000 petajoules (a standard measure of energy) in 2007.Now take a look at the chart for China's energy flow.Again, if you just look at coal consumption, you can clearly see that their reported use of the fossil fuel in 2007 wasstaggering57,000 petajoules, nearly half of the world's total consumption of this energy source.Coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel that is formed in our planet's swamps over hundreds of millions of years. Layer upon layer of organic plant material is smashed together under intense pressure and heat. Coal harbors energy that plants absorbed from the sun millions of years ago. We extract that energy by burning it.While coal use in China has actually been slowing since the early 2000s, due to sluggish economic growth and new environmental policies, it still must burn gargantuan amounts to keep up with its overwhelming energy demands.Considering that burning coal is the top emitter of carbon dioxide and the leading cause of smog, acid rain, and noxious air pollution, China has a long way to come in clearing its ever-growing cloud of smog.An estimated 4,000 people die every day from pollution in Chinaa sobering statistic considering that on bad days, breathing in a day's worth of polluted air does the equivalent lung damage as smoking 40 cigarettes, or two packs a day.Join the conversation about this storyNOW WATCH: This is proof that China's pollution is getting out of hand
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