A week ago we fled Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand because we spent too much of the day trapped inside our room, and too much time coughing. You can see the alerts we responded to, here… Heat maps from Beijing to Bangalore showing fierce temperatures, and Air Quality Index readings off the scale.
There are different ways of measuring AQI - but one of the most used has a range running from 0 to 500.
Below 50 is fine. From 50 - 100 indicates you should start to pay attention.
Above that you begin to reduce the amount of time you spend outside, put on a mask - and then stop any kind of normal activity that could raise your rate of respiration.
We were lucky enough to be able to flee to the coast when the index reached 250. Now a leading academic has called on the government to call a state of emergency - because it’s reached 500 out of 500 in Chiang Mai.
Of course it’s not just Thailand’s problem. It’s that time of year in Asia when increasing temperatures, forest fires and the burning off of old crops is creating a vast soup of smog across the region. There’s still enough thick cool winter air above all this to put a cap on it - in the process known as temperature inversion - and seal all the deadliness below.
It’s often easier to blame others for your predicament. Asia has imported some of the heavy industry abandoned by the West. Singapore will complain about illegal logging in Indonesia, only to find Singaporean companies are involved. The authorities in Delhi will blame stubble burners in the Punjab and Haryana for burning 35 million tons of crop waste. Thai farmers will insist a neighbour set their land alight, not them, honest.
Meanwhile the now constant causes of pollution associated with greater wealth remain : Traffic - and the move to bigger and more polluting vehicles. Urbanisation - and green spaces being built upon.
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There are the normal and ancient practices too, like simply using wood for cooking fires.
“A man from San Fransisco asked us why we use charcoal to cook with…” said our outraged friend Noi in Luang Prabang, Laos last month. “Why don’t we use gas instead?”
A silly suggestion - gas may be cleaner, but the supply chain to get bottled gas into Laos is much longer than a trip to the nearby forest.
According to the World Health Organisation, three billion people worldwide use open fires or very basic stoves for cooking and heating.
The cities I’m referring to resemble vast barbecues at meal times; there’s no need for a clock to tell you it’s time to eat...
...Your stomach will be rumbling as the smell of cooking meat creeps in under the door.
Asia’s got the biggest problem moving towards greener alternatives to fossil fuels, simply because it’s got the largest proportion of humanity in one place. But obviously this is an issue with no borders… For example, Britain’s homes and businesses rely heavily on gas for heating and cooking. 80% of homes use gas, and gas is responsible for a third of Britain’s carbon emissions.
The UK’s energy regulator Ofgem suggests that to replace this consumption with electricity provision would mean a tripling of the size of the power network within the next 25 years. That’s if green commitments are to be met, and if the electricity actually comes from green sources.
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There is progress, of course. Last year I wrote about China’s efforts to reduce pollution, at least in its city centres, and as a result, Beijing no longer has the world’s dirtiest skies. It gained 50 more ‘clean air’ days in 2018 - you could breathe fearlessly for 226 days in the year.
Contrast that with Delhi, where you could only breathe easily on 113 days.
It leads to headlines like one in eight deaths in all India being due to pollution. That’s 1.25 million killed last year. 80% of Indians are exposed to unacceptable levels of pollutants.
Sometimes I think that petrol isn’t expensive enough. Here’s a shot of a typical scene in Luang Prabang - not the richest place in the world.
The driver of the pick up truck has left her engine on for eleven minutes, to keep the air con working inside, as she unloads.
The nearer truck has no air con, presumably - the driver’s got his arm out of the window. But he too is reluctant to turn the engine off during a delivery. He’s there for seven minutes. Is it really that much effort to turn a key, every now and again?
The cures are as much about addressing individual citizen’s habits as much as grand projects by government. Before stubble (waste crop) burning was banned in Britain, I remember setting fire each St David’s Day (the first of March) to our bit of the mountain in our West Wales home. It was to get rid of the bracken, and enrich the soil, we were told - but it was mostly ancient practice. The banning of slash and burn was opposed heavily. But it’s accepted now.
The air where we’ve been living may be deadly for another three months, apparently. Our chum Liu has been told not to be outside for a single moment if she possibly can - she’s expecting her first baby.
Children must stay indoors too.
Schools and universities may be shut down again. Businesses will close for days. The restaurants and cafes that serve them will have no customers.
How can that be good for an economy?
Or a people?