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.

  • TakeFive

    I was a rabble-rouser back before the EPA even existed. It was finally created in December of 1970. The improvements from environmental pollution have been impressive in many respects from the early 1970’s – especially on a per capital basis.

    To build a high rise in downtown it’s a half-decade process from pencil to keys. The build out of FasTracks is an ongoing two-decade process. The 54% generation of electricity from coal is down from nearly 70% only a decade ago; that’s impressive. Furthermore the i’s have been dotted in approving Excel Energy’s plan to have 60% of electricity generated by renewable sources by 2030.

    Denver, Colorado (Dec. 4, 2018)—Xcel Energy, a national leader in renewable energy, rolled out a clean energy vision today in Denver that will deliver 100 percent carbon-free electricity to customers by 2050. As part of this vision, the company also announced plans to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030…

    “This is an extraordinary time to work in the energy industry, as we’re providing customers more low-cost clean energy than we could have imagined a decade ago” said Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO, Xcel Energy. “We’re accelerating our carbon reduction goals because we’re encouraged by advances in technology, motivated by customers who are asking for it and committed to working with partners to make it happen.”

  • VS

    This article doesn’t even make sense. I’m in full agreement that there are serious problems with pollution and air quality, but the comparison to Beijing is absolutely inappropriate, and I find this article incredibly unpersuasive.

    #1: No shit, inversions don’t cause pollution, pollution causes pollution. But air quality is going to be worse when there’s an inversion, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. And it doesn’t link to Beijing.

    #2: this argument doesn’t even make sense. They say that it’s fair to compare a bad air day in Denver to a good air day in Beijing, and then make a whole bunch of unrelated points about how China is taking steps to reduce their pollution. Those points are good and true, but they don’t link at all to the reasonableness of comparing a bad air day to a good air day.

    #3: yes, blue skies don’t mean low PM 2.5. Low PM 2.5 means low PM 2.5. I don’t know what that has to do with the comparison to Beijing.

    We need to be able to talk about pollution problems and how to solve them without reverting to intellectually dishonest and hyperbolic arguments. Pointing out these extreme cases of bad air quality is little better than trying to claim that climate change isn’t happening because we had some really cold days this year. Averages and trends are what we need to be talking about. Here’s the WHO map of average air quality around the globe: http://maps.who.int/airpollution/

    • TM

      It might make more sense if you read it as responses to what some people said about the previous article.

      #1. A response to people who were saying the bad air is because of the inversion. Clarifying that yes, pollution is causing the bad air not the weather, because some people weren’t getting it.

      #2. Just trying to make the case that the comparison is fair, you may disagree. Yes, these were unusually bad days for Denver, but pointing out that our bad days can reach levels we associate with a place well known for very bad air helps illustrate just how bad these days are.
      Also worth noting that Beijing is working really hard to reduce those type of days, and maybe we should too.

      #3. Several people said the sky looked blue so there must not be a problem. Clarifying that yes, the sky can look blue and the air can still be polluted because some people weren’t getting it.

      These days may not be representative of the average, but they are very harmful when they do happen. Our average is not as bad as Beijing, yes. But we are having some days that are on that scale and we need to do something about it.

      • VS

        My problem is mostly with the title of the article. #2 really doesn’t make the case that the comparison is fair, it states that it is and then provides absolutely no supporting evidence or even supporting arguments – and #1 and #3 don’t either. The problem with the previous article was that it implied that Denver’s air quality was overall worse than Beijing’s, but it doesn’t even come close to as bad on average and the article made no mention of that. Such obvious intellectual dishonesty only harms the cause of trying to improve things, because it gives people a clear way to say that concerns over air quality are overblown (no pun intended.)

        • TM

          I don’t think it implied Denver is as bad as Beijing on average. Just highlighting that on these days it is. The comparison is useful for illustrating just how bad these days are.

          #1 and #3 were not meant to support that idea, they’re just responses to some of the other comments.

    • TakeFive

      The other shortcoming not mentioned is the $billions in investment now being made around the globe in EV ‘s. It will be another decade but the tsunami of electric vehicles is coming. There’s only so much efficiency that can be wrung from gasoline engines so this will be huge as it is rolled out and adopted.

      • VS

        There are challenges with EVs though, too. For them to effectively combat air pollution, we need to pair them with clean energy generation and a smarter grid that can handle the spiky loads that can be put on it with EVs. We have lots of progress with EVs which is definitely a step in the right direction, but I don’t feel like we are doing enough to evolve our grid. It is unfortunate that the idea of swappable batteries that are charged at smart stations that can take excess energy off the grid doesn’t seem to be catching on.

        • TM

          I always thought swappable batteries would be a great solution to the range problem of electric vehicles. Don’t know why that hasn’t become a thing.

          • VS

            Yeah, they simultaneously solve the range problem and allows us to have a much better grid. I think the problem is that it’s difficult to implement; a network of swap stations needs to be built out across the country, and we need to figure out some kind of ownership model for the batteries that makes sense. Building out that network likely requires some sort of government subsidy (which Americans don’t like) because there aren’t enough EVs on the road yet for it to be profitable, having swappable batteries requires making a standard that everyone can agree on (which may stifle innovation during the current rapid development of EVs and batteries), and some sort of shared ownership model would be required for the batteries (which Americans also don’t like.)

    • Riley Warton

      Is the Beijing-Denver comparison fair? No.

      However, he made the comparison with good purpose. He simply wants people to actually take air pollution in Colorado seriously.

      • VS

        Right, his intent was good, but he makes it far too easy to dismiss his good point (pollution is a problem) along with the bad (Beijing’s air quality is far worse than Denver’s on average).

  • TakeFive

    In 2014, the Chinese … declared war against pollution and “set aside an astounding $120 billion for that purpose,” according to the New York Times.

    Obviously this followed their all-out quest for manufacturing supremacy; they were merely acknowledging the mess created as a result.. But props for positive change.

    Unfortunately in the U.S. we have Dems who love their social programs and Republicans who cherish tax cuts and defense spending. The result is that needed infrastructure investment gets lost in their Kabuki dance.

  • LazyReader

    The US Embassy maintains a online watch of Beijing’s air quality. According to them the city of Beijing has a PM 2.5 count of 183 and a PM10 count of 73 as of March 9th 9:36 EST
    Denver’s air based on reported AIRNow from the EPA indicates a PM2.5 count of 12 and a PM10 count of 30.

  • Camera_Shy

    Be careful not to confuse smog with fog.

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