North China Pollution Cuts Life Expectancy by More than Five Years

More than ever, the People's Republic desperately needs clean tech

2 min read
North China Pollution Cuts Life Expectancy by More than Five Years

As a 67-year-old American man, I can expect to live another 11 years; our talent for denial being what it is, this is something I don't dwell on much. But if you were to tell me that  because of some newly identified factor I can actually only expect to live half that long, I can guarantee this would get my attention.

It was from this perspective—admittedly not a completely logical one—that I digested the widely reported news yesterday that air pollution in northern China has cut life expectancy for the residents of that region by five and a half years. My first reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years. Upon further sober reflection, my second reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years.

The new estimate of China's air pollution toll, which is almost entirely attributable to combustion of coal, mainly in electricity generation but also for heating, comes from scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tsingua University and Peking University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study compares mortality among the 500 million people living in North China in the 1990s with those in the rest of the country and finds that differences are attributable almost entirely to respiratory ailments caused or aggravated by air pollution.

The gravity of the problem is of course nothing new. Credible estimates going back two decades have put the annual death toll from air pollution in China as high as a million. In the severely afflicted cities of the Northeast, communities have started to take drastic measures to protect their children, and the better off talk of emigrating--a new kind of brain drain.

Nevertheless, the new estimate of five-plus years reduced life expectancy is singularly attention-getting and is sure to circulate in China, however much the authorities try to minimize it. More than ever their attention will focus on how to reconcile jobs creation with public health by harnessing clean tech more effectively.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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