Climate Change

A year of smog, in 5 charts

Buildings under construction are seen during a hazy day in Rizhao, Shandong Province, China, March 15, 2016.

A hazy day in Rizhao, Shandong Province, China Image: REUTERS

Jess McCuan
Content creator-in-chief, Quid
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Is smog getting worse? A recent report suggests that the answer depends on where you live.

Whether that’s in Kansas or Kathmandu, here’s a quick overview of a year’s worth of news about smog, that nasty combination of fog and smoke that gets mixed with other pollutants and hangs over cities.

For this analysis, we used Quid, software that searches and analyses massive amounts of data and then offers insight by organizing that content visually.

The most notable smog event last spring was a Saharan dust storm that hit London in May after covering much of Europe in rust-colored dirt. But smog news spiked in the fall around Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, a week-long late-fall celebration in India that involves massive fireworks displays. Smog following festivities in several Indian cities was worse than usual in 2016 because of high pollutant levels, slow wind speed, and moisture in the air. Low visibility led to accidents and school closures.

A Quid timeline maps 3,189 news stories about smog, colored by cluster, from global sources between May 2016 and May 2017. In the graph above, Quid sampled the data to show which stories generated the most volume in relation to each other.

Later in the year, we see a spike in smog reports from Beijing and other parts of China, including one in which photos told most of the story. Students at a middle school in Linzhou in central China were forced to take an exam outdoors, despite a county order to close the school because of heavy smog. Images of children sitting at desks shrouded in smog drew ire from around the world.

Visualizing all those stories in a network (below), the map divides into two large areas — with China’s smog problem in the top right and India’s in the lower left. In between are several interesting clusters about other world cities’ struggles and American environmental policy.

In fact, given the number of links connecting them, the themes that tie the American conversation about smog together with China’s are coal plants, steel production, and a pledge from President Donald Trump to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.

A Quid network shows 3,189 news stories about smog, colored by cluster, from global sources between May 2016 and May 2017.

Also notable in the map: the Volkswagen emissions scandal continues to play out in the news, as VW paid a $2.8 billion criminal fine in April but also announced it would roll out electric cars.

Smog is (no surprise) an overwhelmingly negative topic, with sentiment numbers skewing more dramatically negative than with other issues. Overall sentiment in language in a year’s worth of news data about smog was 58% negative, with only 11% positive.

But there were a few bright spots. VW and other car companies building and selling electric cars provided an area of positive sentiment. California passing stricter emissions laws and duking it out with ports, warehouses and railyards over smog was another. Two of the most unusual clusters in the network were also positive.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has turned Beijing’s smog problem into a crowd-funded art project, installing a silver-plated “vacuum cleaner” in the city and turning the waste it collects into jewelry. And an Italian architect who designs “vertical forest” skyscrapers using trees elsewhere in the world decided to install two in Nanjing, China, to help curb pollution.

Scanning through more than 3,189 news stories about smog, the cities most frequently mentioned in the past year were Beijing, Delhi, and London. The countries mentioned most often: China, India, and the United States. To be clear, Quid isn’t measuring smog levels in these cities. It’s simply analyzing the number of times a city or country was mentioned.

A Quid network shows a network of 3,189 news stories from May 5, 2016-May 5, 2017, clustering by geographic location.

Finally, the main players in smog aren’t necessarily who you’d suspect. In the list below, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, is the person mentioned most often in a year’s worth of smog news. But Donald Trump is the second-most-frequently mentioned, appearing primarily in one category, stories surrounding his EPA chief Scott Pruitt. As one of his first moves, Pruitt, a longtime opponent of environmental laws, signaled that his administration would re-evaluate a key smog rule to make sure it is “in line with the pro-growth directives of this Administration.”

Number 3 on the list, Li Keqiang, is an economist and Premier of the State Council of China, where his purview includes price controls and climate change. Rounding out a list that includes elected officials, meteorologists, and activists from China and India is London mayor Sadiq Khan. London’s dirty air is a “public health emergency,” Khan, an asthma sufferer, told a crowd in January. “We are implementing the boldest policies of any city in the world to get to grips with the awful problems we inherited.”

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