Beijing unveils pollution police to combat smog in city

Chinese capital’s acting mayor vows to step up anti-pollution measures amid concern

A pedestrian walks on a street wearing a smog mask in Beijing, China, in the first week of 2017: since the start of the new year, the air in its 16 districts has seen some of the worst smog on record.  Photograph: Reuters

A pedestrian walks on a street wearing a smog mask in Beijing, China, in the first week of 2017: since the start of the new year, the air in its 16 districts has seen some of the worst smog on record. Photograph: Reuters

 

Beijing is introducing a squad of pollution police to try to ease the Chinese capital’s chronic environmental problems, investigating open-air barbecues and rubbish fires as sources of toxic smog.

Since the start of 2017, the air in Beijing’s 16 districts has seen some of the worst smog on record, and people have been forced to stay indoors or wear masks when going out.

“Like many of us, I am used to checking the weather and the air quality index [AQI] of Beijing first thing in the morning. I totally understand the public’s concerns and complaints over air pollution,” Cai Qi, deputy Communist Party chief and acting mayor of Beijing, told a three-hour news conference and public forum over the weekend.

Toxic levels of smog in Chinese cities are causing widespread anger and the Communist Party has been trying to resolve the problem amid fears of instability. However, such pledges are annual events now and there is scepticism about the effectiveness of the measures to fight pollution.

The problem is particularly bad in winter when coal-fired power plants increase output to cope with higher demand for heating. Government officials also say that unfavourable weather conditions in Beijing make it difficult for pollutants to disperse.

“Open-air barbecues, garbage incineration, biomass burning, dust from roads – these acts of non-compliance with regulations are actually the result of lax supervision and weak law enforcement,” said Mr Cai.

Coal-fired power plant closure

Among the measures promised were the closure of Beijing’s only coal-fired power plant after the winter. Coal consumption will be cut by 30 per cent to fewer than seven million tonnes in 2017.

There were plans to phase out another 300,000 high-polluting old vehicles next year, while cleaner petrol and diesel will be put into use from February 15th. Mr Cai said air pollution in the winter was serious and that greater participation by the public was a good thing. “I think it’s a good sign that more and more people were anxious about air pollution. The more they care, the more they will participate,” he said.

City authorities have already begun installing air purifiers in schools and kindergartens. They were already ordered to stop all outdoor activities. According to the Xinhua news agency, about 500 low-end manufacturing and polluting factories will be closed, while another 2,560 will be upgraded to meet higher pollution treatment standards.

Pollution levels in Beijing and other Chinese cities, especially of the harmful PM2.5 microparticles, are regularly in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines.

Heavy fog

Last week the capital was put under an “orange alert” for heavy fog, which bemused some in the city as it was only the second-highest level in China’s four-stage air alert system. Using air quality measurement apps, the situation seemed truly apocalyptic, shooting past the 500 limit from both the city government’s readings and the usually more reliable US embassy readings.

Since the start of the year, 4,100 building sites have been shut down and 2,500 factories have had their operations restricted.

Xinhua quoted He Ren from the Beijing Volunteer Service Federation asking why there was a discrepancy between official AQI readings and citizens’ first-hand experience when it came to air pollution.

“Despite that, the central and municipal governments have acted decisively and invested a lot to tackle air pollution in recent years, there is still a long way to go to meet the expectation of the public,” he said.