China has woken up to the smell of air pollution
A high concentration of organic nitrogen compounds was found in Beijing's smog in January. photograph: feng li/getty images
A full-page advertisement in the Beijing News on the first day of the Year of the Snake illustrates how China’s pollution problem is generating enough unease for the government to try to raise public awareness of smog, but also that the authorities are now aware they need to do something.
The ad features an image of a face mask resting against a firecracker about to be lit, beneath a slogan saying: “One firecracker less, one more patch of blue sky”.
The night before that the air had throbbed with ordnance, booming firecrackers and flashing fireworks. The pyrotechnics were much less than last year, after official warnings to ease up after weeks of smog, but they were still enough for the Air Quality Index app that many in Beijing check religiously to read 508 “beyond index”. Protection, such as a mask, is recommended in such instances.
The reading is for average concentrations of PM2.5, airborne pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the blood stream.
The previous day the PM2.5 reading for Beijing had been below 20. The World Health Organisation recommends 24-hour exposure of no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Studies by environmental group Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health reckon exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an last year. Air pollution is said to kill 700,000 people a year in China.
What happens in Beijing is that multiple layers of pollution, from coal-fuelled power-plant emissions to vehicle exhaust, combine to cause the smog, and to fan public ire. Increasingly it’s a political issue.
The World Bank estimates that China has 16 of the 20 most-polluted cities globally and, for several years now, China has been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Last year, the government started to release data on emissions and the people are informing themselves about what they are breathing.
The air has been so bad on some days that there is no denying the smog, flights have been delayed and traffic a disaster. “Beijing Cough” has become common.
Spooked by the public outcry over the current bout of pollution, and increasingly fearful inaction could destabilise single-party rule by the Communist Party, the authorities are finally acting.
Off the charts
The initial reaction in mid-January when pollution started going off the charts was to order some cars, mostly official ones, off Beijing’s roads, close the worst-polluting factories and recommend Beijing’s 20 million residents avoid outdoor activities.
One particularly alarming chart from Bloomberg compared Beijing’s daily peak and average concentrations of PM2.5 with those in a smoking lounge in a US airport.
The 2013 daily average in Beijing was 194 micrograms per cubic metre, with an intraday peak of 886 on January 12, while in 16 US airport smoking rooms the PM2.5 levels averaged 166.6.