How U.S. Cities Might Look If They Polluted Like China

Smog, smog and even more smog.

American cities would probably look radically different if we hadn’t taken major steps to limit air pollution. For example, you might not be able to see them at all.

New visualizations from Save on Energy, a company that lets consumers compare electricity plans, imagine life without the regulations enshrined in the Clean Air Act.

The images show what several U.S. cities might look like today if air contamination matched the levels in Xingtai, an industrial Chinese city that’s home to more than 7 million people ― as well as constant smog and some of the worst air pollution in the world.

Here’s New York City:

Save on Energy

Save on Energy determined the potential air pollution levels, measured by the concentration of fine particles in the air, by using Xinghai’s pollution levels and adjusting for each U.S. city’s population. The company then considered how that would affect visibility, and applied an equivalent smog filter to images of each city.

The World Health Organization, which tracks cities’ smog levels, ranked Xingtai as the city with the eighth worst air pollution in the world earlier this year. Seven other Chinese cities were in the top 50 of WHO’s rankings, though the country is trying to tackle its pollution problem.

Air pollution comes from a number of sources, including emissions associated with cars, factories and power plants. The energy industry is a major contributor to air pollution, which plays a role in health problems like heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Air pollution is linked to the early deaths of about 6.5 million people a year worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Clean Air Act, originally passed in 1970, created restrictions on different kinds of harmful emissions and tasked the Environmental Protection Agency with making sure businesses complied. Between 1970 and 2014, emission levels of six common pollutants (particles, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide) dropped about 69 percent in the U.S., according to the EPA.

“Without these regulations, the air in U.S. cities could be as bad, if not worse, than that of Chinese cities,” the Save on Energy report states. “Rather than stretching up into a clear blue skyline, U.S. cities would be polluted with smog, limiting visibility and posing a public health risk to everyone exposed to it.”

Still, more than half of Americans are breathing unhealthy air where they live, and there remain plenty of challenges to reducing air pollution. Last year, the EPA strengthened regulations limiting ground-level ozone pollution. The House of Representatives promptly passed a bill catering to business groups that would delay the change to EPA standards by a decade.

Here’s what eight other U.S. cities might look like if their pollution levels matched Xingtai’s.

Los Angeles, California
Credit: Save on Energy
Chicago, Illinois
Credit: Save on Energy
Houston, Texas
Credit: Save on Energy
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Credit: Save on Energy
San Jose, California
Credit: Save on Energy
Phoenix, Arizona
Credit Save on Energy
Dallas, Texas
Credit Save on Energy
San Diego, California
Credit: Save on Energy


Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.


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