On January 16, 2014, the Chinese capital of Beijing was hit by the season’s first wave of smog caused by the massive amount of air pollution in the region. The readings recorded were the highest since January 2013 and the city has become almost completely depleted of natural light. The situation has gotten so bad that people gathered at 4 AM at the various squares across the city wearing industrial face masks just to watch a televised sunrise on the giant LED screens, usually used for advertising tourist destinations.
“Protecting Atmospheric Environment Is Everyone’s Responsibility”
The government ordered the elderly and school children to stay in, while others wore face masks and trudged through the dark, smoggy city. The city’s air quality is often poor and has been getting worse in the past few years, with winters being the worst time due to the stagnant weather patterns and excessive coal burning. The PM 2.5 readings on Thursday, January 16th were the first of the season to exceed 500 micrograms per cubic meter. PM 2.5 readings are a measure of the concentration of fine particulate matter which is less than 2.5 microns in the air. Particulate matter that small can be inhaled into the lungs and is dangerous for human health. The World Health Organization has set the safety standard for PM 2.5 as 25 micrograms, with levels above 300 being deemed hazardous. In Beijing, however, it reached values 26 times greater than the prescribed limit, as a monitoring post in the US Embassy in Beijing recorded a PM 2.5 value of 671. The air has and acrid odor and during the morning, no sunlight could penetrate the thick layer of smog engulfing the city.
Air pollution has reached such high values in many major cities of China where environmental protection is sacrificed for the sake of economic development. In the northeastern city of Harbin, readings reached values up to 1000 micrograms in October. In December, Shanghai and it’s neighboring areas reported PM 2.5 values exceeding 600. The worst area in the country, however, is the Hebei province which has seven of the ten most polluted cities of China. As the country’s biggest steel producing province, the pollution from Hebein spreads to the neighboring areas of Beijing and Tianjin.
Coal burning and car emissions are the major reasons for air pollution, but there is also the influence of powerful enterprises which keeps China’s government from cracking down many violators of China’s new environmental protection policies and standards. With Beijing alone reporting 58 days of serious pollution in 2013 (or one day every week), the city’s mayor, Wang Anshun, announced that the use of coal in Beijing will be cut down by 2.6 million tonnes and that $2.4 billion will be set aside to improve the air quality. Xinhua, a state news agency, reported Wang saying that coal-burning boilers in Beijing’s fifth ring road will be shutdown, and measures will be taken against coal burning in areas neighboring the capital. The capital will also ban heavily polluting vehicles this year and promote the use of new ‘greener’ vehicles.
Due to widespread public anger, local authorities are implementing policies more strictly and punishing officials in regions where the pollution has worsened due to leniency in enforcement. In the Hebei province alone, 8,347 companies were shutdown last year due to the heavy pollution they were causing. The province plans to cut crude steel production by 15 million tonnes this year, with coal consumption being reduced by the same amount. China’s commercial capital, Shanghai, introduced emergency measures in case of severe smog, allowing it to close schools and order cars off the road.
The government is taking steps to improve the quality of its environment, but could it be too little, too late?