Beijing issued its most severe smog warning for Tuesday — the first time the municipal government has issued a so-called red pollution alert — after acrid-smelling haze returned to the Chinese capital.
Local authorities upgraded the air pollution alert to red from orange, effective from 7 a.m. Dec. 8 to noon Dec. 10, according to a statement on Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s official Weibo Monday. Some industrial companies must stop or limit production, outdoor construction work will be banned and primary schools and kindergartens are advised to cancel classes, the statement said. Even healthy people should try to avoid outdoor activity and choose public transportation.
The move was remarkable because Beijing’s smog on Monday, while severe, was less intense than the pollution that struck the capital last week when the government kept the alert level at orange. The concentration of PM2.5 — particulate considered the must dangerous to people’s health — was 208 micrograms per cubic meter at 6 p.m. near Tiananmen Square, compared to 666 micrograms per cubic meter last week, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center.
“The red alert shows the local government has stepped up efforts to protect citizens from pollution,” said Dong Liansai, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “It’s probably because of pressure from the central government.”
Clear skies aren’t expected again until after the smog peaks Wednesday, according to the China National Environment Monitoring Center.
Monday’s bad air, coupled with five days of hazardous pollution on Nov. 27-Dec. 1, raised fresh concern about the government’s ability to tackle air quality despite repeated statements from leaders that cleaning up the environment in the country is a top priority. Last week, the concentration of fine particulates that pose the greatest risk to human health rose to 666, more than 25 times World Health Organization-recommended levels.
The latest round of bad air was the result of “factory discharges and unfavorable weather conditions,” the state-run China Daily reported, citing National Meteorological Center Senior Engineer Xue Jianjun. China will strengthen inspections of polluting factories, Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining said, according to China Daily.
China urged local governments to start emergency measures to cope with the pollution, according to a statement on the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Sunday. Emissions from automobiles are the main contributor to Beijing’s smog, the ministry said on Dec. 1.
China should strengthen checks on vehicular emissions, said Yan Ziqing, a director of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences. About 10 percent of the nation’s vehicles that exceed the environment ministry’s standards still run on the road, resulting in more pollution, she said.
Last week, Beijing’s traffic authority said it would consider a congestion fee to ease traffic and smog in the city. The idea was met with impatience from China Daily’s editorial page, which said such a fee should have been put in place long ago.
“The severity of the city’s traffic and pollution problems leaves no time for policymakers to postpone such moves,” the newspaper said.
The capitals of the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, were blanketed in hazardous, choking smog on Monday as climate change talks began in Paris, where leaders of both countries are among the participants.
China’s capital Beijing maintained an “orange” pollution alert, the second-highest level, on Monday, closing highways, halting or suspending construction and prompting a warning to residents to stay indoors.
The choking pollution was caused by the “unfavourable” weather, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said on Sunday. Emissions in northern China soar over winter as urban heating systems are switched on and low wind speeds have meant that polluted air has not been dispersed.
In New Delhi, the U.S. embassy’s monitoring station recorded an air quality index of 372, which puts air pollution levels well into “hazardous” territory. A thick smog blanketed the city and visibility was down to about 200 yards (metres).
Air quality in the city of 16 million is usually bad in winter, when coal fires are lit by the poor to ward off the cold. Traffic fumes, too, are trapped over the city by a temperature inversion and the lack of wind.
However, the government has not raised any alarm over the current air quality and no advisories have been issued to the public. Thirty thousand runners took part in a half marathon at the weekend, when pollution levels were just as high.
In Beijing, a city of 22.5 million, the air quality index in some parts of the city soared to 500, its highest possible level. At levels higher than 300, residents are encouraged to remain indoors, according to government guidelines.
The hazardous air underscores the challenge facing the government as it battles pollution caused by the coal-burning power industry and will raise questions about its ability to clean up its economy at the talks in Paris.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are both in Paris and both were scheduled to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to give momentum to the two-week negotiations.
“WHEN A CHILD IS BORN, WE PLANT A TREE”
Modi sought to highlight India’s green credentials in an article for the Financial Times on Monday, writing: “The instinct of our culture is to take a sustainable path to development. When a child is born, we plant a tree.”
But at Connaught Place, a city centre landmark in New Delhi, people chided the government for failing to minimise the risks to their health from air pollution.
“The pollution level is so high it’s just unbelievable,” said Aisha, a 19-year-old student.
For Beijing’s residents, the poor air makes breathing hard.
“This sort of weather, you can see that all of Beijing has been completely enveloped in smog…and for every breath, getting up every morning, your throat will feel particularly uncomfortable,” said Zhang Heng, a 26-year-old architect.
The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said on Sunday that it had requested factories to limit or suspend output and had also stopped construction work throughout the city.
The ministry said the number of cities affected by heavy pollution had reached 23, stretching across 530,000 square km, an area the size of Spain, but a cold front beginning on Wednesday would see the situation improve.
State-run Xinhua news agency said more than 200 expressway toll gates in east China’s Shandong province were closed on Monday due to smog. The province issued a yellow alert.
China launched a “war on pollution” last year following a spate of smog outbreaks in Beijing and surrounding regions.
China has vowed to slash coal consumption and close down polluting industrial capacity, but environmental officials admit that the country is unlikely to meet state air quality standards until at least 2030.
Reducing coal use and promoting cleaner forms of energy are set to play a crucial role in China’s pledges to bring its climate warming greenhouse gas emissions to a peak by around 2030.
(Reporting by David Stanway, Kathy Chen and Adam Rose in Beijing, and; Douglas Busvine and Alex Richardson in New Delhi; Editing by Josephine Mason and Raju Gopalakrishnan)