It’s Fair to Compare Denver’s Air Pollution to Beijing

Denver refinery through brown cloud of pollution
The Regency Student Housing Community (left) and a construction crane frame part of the refinery complex northeast of Denver, which is difficult to see through today's smog. Photos: Andy Bosselman

On Wednesday we ran a story, Fossil Fuels Choke Denver With Air Quality 3 Times Worse Than Beijing. Several critiques of the piece showed up in its comments section and on Reddit. This post responds to three.

1) The pollution is the fault of an inversion layer, a weather pattern that traps particulate matter.

The weather did not create the pollution.

  • Cars create the pollution.
  • Refineries, which make the gas people put into their cars, make the pollution.
  • And Colorado’s electricity, 54 percent of which is generated from coal, do, too.

It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said. But it’s easy to understand why the public is confused: Both Colorado Public Radio and the Denver Post explicitly blamed the weather.

The weather may affect how quickly pollution moves out of the region, as the Post explains. But Coloradans pump extraordinary quantities of hazardous stuff into the air. As one Reddit user colorfully noted, the weather turns Denver into “The Car Fart Hot Box.”

The Redditor compared how drivers contribute emissions to the region’s sky in a way that’s similar to marijuana smoke filling a room or a car without good ventilation. The “hot box” effect, could be avoided if the smoke — or pollution — was not produced in the first place.

Beijing's skyline on a clear day. Photo by Zhang Kaiyv on Unsplash
Beijing’s skyline on a clear day. Photo by Zhang Kaiyv via Unsplash

2) It’s not fair to compare a bad day in Denver to a good day in Beijing.

On Wednesday, Denver’s sky was brown and state health officials warned people with vulnerable health to take caution. They suggested that everyone should avoid vigorous activities. At 6 p.m., Denver’s air quality index measured an unhealthy level of 162 PM 2.5, the smallest particles of pollution, which pose the greatest health risks. This was more than three times worse than the moderate rating of 51 at that time in Beijing.

It is true that when people think of the air in Beijing, they imagine higher levels of pollution. New Delhi frequently has levels similar to what Beijing was known for. The Indian capital reached a hazardous level of 363 PM 2.5 earlier this week.

But it’s still worth comparing Denver to Beijing, especially considering China’s extraordinary efforts to clean up its air, which are less well-known.

In 2014, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang declared war against pollution, requiring the city to reduce pollution by 25 percent — and to “set aside an astounding $120 billion for that purpose,” according to the New York Times.

The plan restricted the number of cars on the streets and drastically reduced the use of coal for generating electricity.

The effort had an incredible impact.

“[Greenpeace] found that concentrations of PM 2.5 … were 54 percent lower in the Chinese capital during the fourth quarter of 2017 than during the same period of 2016,” reported The Economist.

If Beijing can cut the number of people who drive, quit coal for generating electricity, and invest billions to do these things, why can’t Colorado and Denver finally get serious about:

  • Funding a dramatically improved public transportation system.
    • Denver already has plans to create a high-frequency transit network, but it has no plans to fund it.
    • The Regional Transportation District continually cuts service and fails to improve frequency and reliability — and funding is a major reason.
  • Accelerate the phaseout of coal power in the northern Front Range, the area most prone to unhealthy air quality.
  • Adopt tougher environmental regulations for  the Suncor refineries in Commerce City, and the oil and gas industry.
Brown cloud on clear days
Even on days with blue skies, a brown haze of pollution is common over the Denver Metro. These images are from Jan. 30 and yesterday afternoon. Compare to the image from yesterday at the top of the page.

3) The sky is blue today, quit your whining.

Looks can be deceiving. If you tilt your head straight up, the sky will often look crystal clear. But if you go to a tall building or a higher elevation and look at the horizon, you’ll often see a brown haze over Denver and much of the northern Front Range.

Despite frequent blue skies, Denver’s air is some of the most polluted in the country. According to the American Lung Association, Denver is the:

  • 24th worst out of 201 metropolitan areas for days with high PM 2.5 pollution (which creates the brown cloud)
  • 14th worst out of 227 metropolitan areas for high ozone days

These levels of pollution increase the number of people affected by asthma. Nine percent of Coloradans, 375,709 people, have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Air pollution also affects cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and can complicate other health conditions like diabetes.