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Beijing issues first-ever ‘red alert’ due to severe air pollution

© Greg Baker, AFP | A man wears a mask to protect himself from air pollution in Beijing on December 8, 2015

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-12-08

Half of Beijing's private cars have been ordered off the streets, while construction sites, factories and schools are closed as authorities in the smog-shrouded Chinese capital respond to public criticism over air pollution.

The alert – the most serious warning on a four-tier system adopted in 2013 – is in effect through Thursday, meaning authorities have forecast three consecutive days of severe smog.

In addition to public warnings and restrictions, authorities recommended businesses to implement flexible working hours, and that all "large-scale, outdoor activities" be stopped.

The Beijing City Emergency Office said that "still weather, reduced cold temperatures and an increase in humidity" prompted the red alert, according to China Xinhua News.

Despite some improvement in Beijing's air over the past year, readings of dangerous particles Tuesday were as high as a dozen times the safe level, in what has become an embarrassment for a government trying to clean up the legacy of pollution left from years of full-tilt economic growth.

"This is modern life for Beijing people. We wanted to develop, and now we pay the price," office worker Cao Yong said during a break outside her Beijing building.

To issue a red alert the pollution-forecasting model must predict three or more days of smog with levels of 300 or higher on the city's air quality index, which typically would include having levels of dangerous PM2.5 particles (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less) of about 10 times the safe level. A forecast of even higher pollution, but lasting only two days, would not trigger the alert.

By late afternoon Monday, the US embassy's monitoring station recorded an air quality index of 343, which puts air pollution levels in the "hazardous" region.

It's the second time this month that notoriously polluted Beijing has experienced a prolonged bout of smog, sending PM2.5 levels in the suburbs as high as 976 micrograms. Beijing was also shrouded in persistent smog for most of November, when power demand soared due to unusually cold weather.

‘Chemical warfare’

Still, despite the red alert, many Beijing residents are trying to circumvent the advisory. Hundreds of people, including toddlers, gathered in Tiananmen Square early Tuesday morning to watch the flag-raising ceremony there. And while students celebrated not having to go to class, those who still had to go to work posted pictures on social media of themselves wearing industrial-strength face masks.

Although half the cars were pulled off the road according to an odd-even number plate scheme, state radio showed a picture on its official microblog of a policeman removing paper which had been stuck to a vehicle's license plate in order to obscure a final digit which would have restricted it from driving. (A similar tactic was also used successfully by authorities in Paris, France, to limit the numbers of cars on the road.)

"I feel like I'm engaged in chemical warfare," wrote one commuter.

"You have to do whatever you can to protect yourself," Beijing resident Li Huiwen said while stopping at a market. "Even when wearing the mask, I feel uncomfortable and don't have any energy."

Others have a slightly more positive outlook on the hazardous situation. A man who gave only his surname, Du, said the haze was good for taking photographs of old buildings and that he was taking advantage of a lack of crowds near Beijing's ancient Forbidden City. "I like this kind of haziness. It gives a blurry feeling and makes you feel like you're in a dream."

A grey soupy haze subsumed Beijing's unique landmarks, and convenience stores did quick business selling air-filtering masks as residents sought to spend as little time outdoors as possible.

While pollution in the capital improved in the first 10 months of the year compared with the same period last year, heavy smog that can be seen from outer space regularly forces Beijing schools to suspend outdoor activities and can even prompt highway closures because of reduced visibility.

"It is a sharp warning to us that we may have too much development at the price of environment and it is time for us to seriously deal with air pollution," said Fan Jinglong, a hotel employee.

The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, without a hint of irony, praised China's contribution to fighting climate change in a commentary on Tuesday, written to coincide with the Paris climate talks.

"People everywhere are looking forward to China's continuous progress on the road to green development, acting as a model for the world to tackle the challenge of climate change."

A changing wind?

Although smog has always been a public health concern in Beijing, the government's response system has come under extra scrutiny in the past week after it did not issue a red alert during another recent episode of heavy smog which exceeded hazardous levels for nearly 72 hours.

Environment Minister Chen Jining called a special meeting on Monday night to urge more supervision in Beijing and its surrounding cities, including Tianjin, as he increased the number of environmental inspection teams to 12, according to ThePaper.cn, a state-backed news website.

"This measure reflects that the government, at least, has the courage to face this problem," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese environmental NGO, referring to the red alert.

"Before, they were more or less somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the problem. Now there's a willingness to face this problem directly."

Greenpeace called the red alert "a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government".

In a statement, Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organisation's representative in China, said the red alert "means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously".

"From repudiating PM2.5 to today's issuance of a red alert, in just a few years, this is a near-revolutionary change in thinking", Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the influential state-run Global Times tabloid, wrote on his microblog on Tuesday.

Along with limiting cars to driving every other day depending on the last number of their license plate, a raft of other restrictions are aimed at reducing the amount of dust and other particulate matter in the city of 22.5 million people. Officials said extra subway trains and buses would be added to handle the additional strain on public transport.

Polluted air throughout broad swaths of China has had severe health effects. A study led by atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld of Germany's Max Planck Institute and published this year in Nature magazine estimated that 1.4 million people each year die prematurely because of pollution in China.

Most of the pollution is blamed on coal-fired power plants, along with vehicle emissions, construction and factory work. China, the world's biggest carbon emitter, plans to upgrade coal power plants over the next five years to tackle the problem, and says its emissions will peak by around 2030 before starting to decline.

While emissions standards have been tightened and heavy investments made in solar, wind and other renewable energy, China still depends on coal for more than 60 percent of its power.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2015-12-08

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