Beijing pollution off the charts as citizens take steps to cope with smog

Climate change adviser describes smog in the capital as unbearable

Chinese tourists wearing  face masks at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during severe pollution today. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Chinese tourists wearing face masks at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during severe pollution today. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images


Air pollution in Beijing has literally gone off the charts, going beyond “hazardous” into uncharted territory, and even the authorities are now admitting that more aggressive steps need to be taken to make the air breathable again.

China’s atmosphere has become “unbearable” and the world’s biggest carbon emitter must aggressively cut its reliance on coal as a power source, Beijing’s climate-change adviser said this week.

Remarks by Li Junfeng, director general of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, chime with the experience of looking out the window of The Irish Times’s Beijing bureau, where you cannot see across Jianguomenwai Avenue, a thoroughfare about as wide as O’Connell Street in Dublin.

By 4pm Irish time on Tuesday, the CN Air Quality Index app that gives a reading for pollution was “beyond index” at 525 in its reading for PM 2.5 particles, the most dangerous. The concentration was 21 times higher than the 25 recommended for 24-hour exposure by the World Health Organisation.

On the streets, many people are wearing masks and there are jokes about how it resembles the SARS outbreak in 2003. While face masks used to be the official preserve of concerned expatriates, now local Chinese are also fearful of the effects.

Called off
Children wear masks going to school, and in the classrooms air purifiers are running. Physical education classes, outdoor exercise and sports meets at kindergartens, primary and high schools have all been called off. According to new regulations, if the high smog alert continues for another day or two, the children will stay home.

Every room in the house has an air purifier and these are cranked up to 11 most of the time, which is noisy but essential.

“China’s pollution is at an unbearable stage,” Li said at a conference in Beijing this week. “It’s like a smoker who needs to quit smoking at once otherwise he will risk getting lung cancer.”

Municipal authorities have pledged to shut polluting factories and limit the number of cars in response to growing public concern that dirty air and water are damaging people’s health. China, which now uses coal for about 65 per cent of its energy, should cut that ratio by two percentage points a year, according to Li.

Higher levels of pollution were reported in other parts of northern and central China. The air quality indexes in the cities of Shijiazhuang and Xingtai in Hebei province and Yangquan of Shanxi province were noticeably higher.

Things are so bad in Shijiazhuang that Li Guixin yesterday became the first person in the country to sue the government for failing to curb air pollution.

Mr Li submitted his complaint to a district court, asking the Shijiazhuang municipal environmental protection bureau to “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law”, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily reported.

Last month, the ministry of environmental protection issued China’s local authorities targets to cut levels of major air pollutants by five per cent to 25 per cent by 2017 as compared with 2012 levels.

Orange alert
Beijing went on orange alert – the second highest level – for the first time on Friday. Manufacturing plants in the city have suspended or cut production, building work is halted, and no barbecues are allowed.

The Beijing municipal commission of economy and information technology said 36 companies have halted production and another 75 have cut their output since February 21st in the capital.

It was hard to tell whether there was a connection between the smog and the latest populist outing by China’s president, Xi Jinping, who shocked locals by visiting courtyard homes and chatting with pedestrians near the popular Nanluoguxiang shopping street, drawing praise from social media users for his unusual public diplomacy.