Airpocalypse as pollution index goes from 'crazy bad' to 'unhealthy', then 'beyond index'

Wed, Jan 16, 2013, 00:00

BEIJING LETTER:The official news agency says the air quality is improving, but no one believes it

With smog in Beijing the worst on record and set to last until the middle of the week at least, it’s being called the “Airpocalypse”. The city looks like the inside of a smoker’s lung, as one Beijinger put it.

We were glad of our anti-pollution face-masks as Beijing’s smog reached grotesque new levels. We bunkered down in our apartment and cranked up the air purifiers. Welcome to life at the exhaust pipe of the world’s economic growth engine.

In November 2010, the Air Quality Index operated by the US embassy in Beijing, which uses standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency and measures fine particles called PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter, reached “crazy bad” levels. The index gives an “unhealthy” reading most of the time.

Anything above 300 is hazardous, while “beyond index” is above 500. The reading was “beyond index” for 16 hours in a row at the weekend.

Even the normally cowed local media didn’t bother with the usual euphemisms such as “fog”. They gave charts of where the smog was thickest and warned people to stay indoors in no uncertain terms. Schoolchildren were not allowed outside to play, a rarity.

The Chinese government’s own monitors, which people have tended to ignore as they drastically understate the reality, notched up more than 500 in what could be a sign of new openness.

Beijing was transformed into an “Unreal City”, like the London of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, smothered by “the brown fog of a winter dawn”, or the chancery of Dickens’ Bleak House, the ancient Greenwich pensioners with fog in their eyes and throats “wheezing by the firesides of their wards”.

The smog crept into the hall and our children put on their masks and made funny voices, pretending to be Kane, the villain in Dark Knight Rises who needs a respiratory mask to stay alive. Even Batman would have had to dig deep into his utility belt to deal with the smog.

Beijing wasn’t even the worst hit – the smog clouded huge swathes of the frozen north which has been experiencing the worst winter in a decade – that dubious honour went to Shijiazhuang in Hebei province.

The Xinhua news agency reported on the last day of the year that Beijing’s air quality had improved for 14 straight years, with major pollutants down in the city. Then, last week, it quoted officials saying that Beijing would “continue to lower emissions of major pollutants” and that last year’s targets had been met. No one believes it.

With 400,000 new cars taking to the streets every year and with the permanent population increasing by 400,000 people every year, it’s a tough job, according to Qiao Shufang, an official with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

There were plenty of angry comments online. One Beijing online commentator wrote on the Twitter-style Weibo: “This has nothing to do with patriotism. I love my country, but I’d rather die in a war protecting the country, not PM 2.5, it’s such a cheap way to die.”

Another wondered what had happened to the clean air that Beijing had experienced during the Olympic Games in 2008. “Where is the 2008 air gone? Was that natural air or man-made? Now we have our answer.”

Another made the point, however, that western countries were free of environmental problems because they exported them all to China.

“Go to a US supermarket and you’ll see how all the paper, all the chopsticks, all the wooden furniture, even the toothpicks, are made in China.”

The European Commission estimates that China produced 9.7 million kilotons of carbon dioxide in 2011, nearly double the United States’s 5.42 million kilotons. The Chinese cement industry alone produced 820,000 kilotons that year.

China has been the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases for years and, while there is growing recognition of the problem, there is still resentment at how, per capita, the US is much higher, given that its population is 4.5 times smaller than China’s.

There is no sign that the government wants to slow urbanisation. On the contrary, as many as 300 million people are expected to move from the countryside by 2030 to join the 600 million already living in cities, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Environmental degradation is increasingly a political issue, as people worry about the impact on their children, combined with the vague feeling that the real cost is borne by the people who have to breathe the air, not those who produce the vile smog.

One person wrote that gross domestic product growth was like a ladder for cadres to climb.

“When they get rich, they emigrate, leaving the people here to suffer. China is crying.”