When poor air quality deteriorates to the point of 'crazy bad'


BEIJING LETTER:Almost everyone has a cough, creating a sense of a city on two packs of cigarettes a day

SOMETIMES THE usual words to describe something simply fall flat. In Beijing’s case, the words “bad” or “hazardous” no longer do justice to describe the most polluted days in the Chinese capital.

So the US embassy came up with “crazy bad,” and it’s the phrase doing the rounds in Beijing, a pollution trouble spot.

About this time of year, the heating goes on in homes all over northern China. It’s a massive switch-on as the winter descends, and the cold season falls quickly in this part of the world. However it usually combines with a shocking decline in air quality; this year is no exception.

This is the gritty reality of data showing China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Some of the murky sky is fog, plus more people use their cars around this time of year because of the chill. The fact though that power stations that produce much of China’s energy still run on heavily polluting coal makes for a grim picture in the sky above Beijing.

The US embassy in Beijing’s air quality index, which runs on Twitter and is updated every hour or two, is the only reliable indicator of how bad the pollution is in the Chinese capital. When it slid into “crazy bad” territory on the embassy’s Twitter feed late last week, everyone knew the smog had hit its worst point for a long time.

The phrase was later taken down and instead the usual description for when the air quality goes above 500 – hazardous, or beyond index – was used. The language was deemed inaccurate, although, as most in Beijing know, it was accurate.

To put this into perspective – a reading of 500 is about 20 times higher than the amount of tiny particulate matter pollution deemed acceptable by the World Health Organisation.

The government rating at the same time was 312, but no one pays attention to the official figures, which tend to under- report the foul air in the capital.

Earlier this month, the ministry of environmental protection issued a survey showing pollution levels were improving in many Chinese cities and that the quality of the overall environment remained “stable”.

The survey showed that 66.7 per cent of the days last year in 655 cities surveyed had fair and good levels of air quality.

While these figures do not bear much of a connection to the reality in Beijing, things have become a lot better since a few years ago. For one, the cars on the roads are better than they used be, with improved emissions monitoring.

Moreover, the decision to move the Capital Steel Mills out of the city ahead of the Olympics two years ago has achieved a lot of good.

The air quality can still be appalling, though. Two young people, Lu Weiwei and Fantao, took part in a simple project. They took pictures of Beijing’s sky every day from June 30th last year until May 31st this year and recorded the air quality. They discovered 180 days of “blue sky”, which was 105 days fewer than the official figures.

The official air monitors only measure relatively coarse particulate matter, whereas the US embassy system monitors smaller, deadlier dust particles.

Health experts say breathing polluted air can affect respiratory functions and worsen problems for those with asthma or allergies.

The yellow-tinged haze softens the edges of the skyscrapers in Beijing – almost everyone has a cough and there is a constant clearing of throats – like the entire city is on two packs of cigarettes a day.

There is an acrid smell in the air when you leave your apartment building and the US embassy “crazy bad” tweets brought only wry smiles.

The normally vivid “China World” sign atop the China World Trade Centre is a mushy reddish glow, framed in yellow.

Schools continued to do their outdoor exercises, although some international schools are keeping the children indoors.

Much of the pollution is blamed on the sharp rise in the number of passenger cars, which produce 51 million tonnes of pollutants every year. Beijing adds 1,200 vehicles a day; the number of vehicles in China rose 9.3 per cent to 170 million last year, which was 25 times that in 1980.

Even the government is forced to concede that pollution is an unfortunate byproduct of economic expansion.

“If the city’s planning was better, people from the outskirts wouldn’t have to commute for hours each day,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, told the Shanghai Daily. “Beijing needs to place more of a priority on the environment.”

Yesterday, the “crazy bad” air had largely dispersed, blown away by strong winds and the reading had settled back for the time being to “good”.

Not “crazy good”, just “good”.