Smog casts a shadow over our family life in Beijing

COP21: The climate and me: An Irishman in China on face-masks, no-drive days and cancelled football matches

A collective groan goes around the house on the days when we wake up, open the curtains and see, well, nothing – except for dense white clouds, that might be fog but we know 99 times out of 100 is smog.

One of the kids will check the CN Air Quality Index app on the iPhone, a site we check every morning to see what is the reading for PM 2.5 particles, the really dodgy ones. Then we crank up the air purifiers in all the rooms, making for a noisy morning.

Next thing is to check and see if after-school sporting activities have been cancelled or not. At my son’s school, there are two giant oxygenated domes for the really polluted days, but not all the after-school football matches can take place there.

My daughter likes to pick out funky face-masks whenever we see them, and we always humour her, no matter how expensive.


The current favourite is the Vogmask, a US maskmaker which has collaborated with Hong Kong artists to produce some very attractive options, while friends are excited by the Freka masks from Britain.

Local designers have come up with some great-looking, and hopefully effective, protection against the filthy yellow-tinged air.

Combined with the awareness of the need for precautions, there is a certain bitter resignation.

Usual suspects

The main culprits for air pollution in Beijing include exhaust from the capital’s more than five million motor vehicles, coal-fired power stations in neighbouring provinces, dust storms from the northern deserts and dust from building sites.

Things have been improving for several months, the welcome effect of the government’s efforts to shutter coal-fired power plants and implement restrictions on driving – on Tuesdays I can’t drive because that is my “no-drive day” – and limit the number of licence plates to stop the car population revving out of control.

But then, one day, it comes back just like that, and after a week of eye-stinging smog, you are not impressed with statistics showing the increased number of “blue-sky days”.

It’s better in Beijing too than in other parts. In Shenyang earlier this month, the pollution level went right off the charts, to 40 times the UN’s recommended limit.

Maybe China will come up with a solution to it all at the Paris climate change talks.

Let’s hope that it comes soon – the face masks and filters for the air purifiers are costing me a fortune.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing