News of China’s smog shroud has been grabbing headlines of late. Beijing, Shanghai and even the northern city of Harbin are choking on their own smoke. This is not simple industrialization, as much of the smoke comes from rudimentary heating and cooking stoves. But it is related – greatly increased urbanization packs people together allowing thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of coal and biomass fires to really smog up a city.

Harbin, famous for its ice and snow festival and Russian architecture, surpassed even Beijing’s “airpocalypse” of last January in terms of bad air. Harbin measured 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre of 2.5 micrometer particulate matter in some spots compared to airpocalypse’s 900 height. If that doesn’t make much sense just keep in mind that the World Health Organization recommends only 25 for daily exposure.

From the Guardian:

Officials blamed the first day of winter heating in the city – leading to increased coal burning – low winds and the burning of crop stubble as well as vehicle emissions. Others said a sudden temperature change and humidity might have contributed.

Harbin smog. Pic: Fredrik Rubensson (Flickr CC)

The usual suspects – coal, cooking and cars – are killing people in huge numbers across the Asian continent. In the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator a combination of exceptionally cold winters and slums filled with urban gers (yurts) heated by indoor stoves is deadly. These make Ulan Bator the second most polluted city in the world after Ahvaz in Iran according to the WHO. I shudder to think about what they’re doing in Ahvaz (much of their smog reportedly comes from Turkey), but in Ulan Bator ten percent of all deaths can be attributed to air pollution.

(READ MORE: Shanghai looks to clear the air)

Traditional living is all well and good, but when it’s killing people – and that killing is exacerbated by modernization and urbanization – something’s got to be done. In India 160 million households use soot-emitting stoves, which as you can imagine smogs the place up. So far attempts to significantly change this situation have failed.

From the Hindu:

The cook stoves and the soot that arises from burning biomass — firewood, dung and agricultural residues — are now the focus of a global community fighting climate change as well. The soot — or black carbon — is a killer. It causes respiratory problems and leads to premature deaths. Women and children in poor households are the worst hit. The black carbon particles also contribute to global warming.

Although growing middle classes do lead to more CO2 and other pollution in the form of industry and car use, the problem with soot or black carbon is largely down to poverty. Families simply can’t afford electricity or gas stoves. So they burn wood, coal or cow dung, all of which produce a lot of particulate matter – a dangerous human health hazard.

Ulan Bator smog. Pic: Einar Fredriksen (Flickr CC)

Much of the solution lies with women, since they do the vast majority of cooking in Asia’s traditional societies. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves offers clean burning alternatives aimed precisely at these women. One design is open sourced and subsidized at £40 ($65), which is unfortunately still too much for many families I imagine. Read more on that from the BBC.

It’s not just the poor of Mongolia and India who are cooking themselves into an early grave. A Chinese government official has recently blamed Beijing’s smog partially on cooking, though he surely acknowledges the role of factor