Winter is coming to China, bringing with it the usual heavy dose of the gray stuff.
For the second time already this year, Beijing has been covered in a thick layer of smog with authorities issuing a “yellow alert” for air pollution, warning residents to once again avoid breathing whenever possible. “Unhealthy” levels of smog still linger over the Chinese capital, and experts expect it will only get worse as the year goes on.
As coal furnaces start burning and the annual smog season creeps into China, it’s worth taking the time for quick refresher. Air quality is typically measured by determining the average density of hazardous particles in the air. The most dangerous of these pollutants is PM2.5, particles that are small enough to get into your lungs and cause some nasty health problems. While any pollution can be harmful, China classifies 150-200 micrograms per cubic meter as “unhealthy,” 201-300 as “very unhealthy” and over 300 as “hazardous.” Meanwhile, the WHO associates PM2.5 levels of 35 and above with significantly higher mortality risks, and suggests living in places with levels under 10.
On Tuesday, Beijing issued a “yellow warning” to residents, the city’s third-highest warning level for smog, forecasting that PM 2.5 levels in the city would stay between 200 and 300 for at least 48 hours. According to The Standard, yesterday at 2 p.m., the average PM2.5 reading recorded in six of Beijing’s districts stood at 279. Aqicn.org gives the city a max reading of 366 over the last 48 hours, recorded on Wednesday night. However, after dawn, the skies of Beijing have cleared considerably. At 5 p.m. today, the PM2.5 score was only 119.
Of course, Beijing residents have grown used to this kind of noxious air quality. Last year, locals suffered through two “red alerts” for smog. To ensure that this would never happen again, earlier this year, the Beijing government took steps to raise the air quality standards for issuing a red alert. Meanwhile, the city government has vowed to clean up its skies by 2030 or so.
One sixth of all face masks sold in China are bought by Beijingers, and residents once again broke them out, hoping to avoid an earlier death and/or weight gain.
China’s environmental ministry has blamed these latest smog problems on companies in Beijing and in surrounding provinces that completely ignored emissions restrictions and went right along polluting as usual. They also pointed the finger at weak regulators who failed to implement anti-pollution measures, calling for the naming and shaming of companies that flout environmental regulations.
Meanwhile, heavy smog has also caused flights to be cancelled and roads to be closed across northern China as visibility dropped to less than one kilometer in some areas, The Standard reported.
In May of this year, Liu Zhengang, director of the Beijing municipal government’s legal affairs office, said that smog is a “combined result of man-made pollution and natural weather conditions.” Therefore, he concluded that it is appropriate for authorities to classify these kinds of events as “meteorological disasters.” Some Beijing residents were unsurprisingly skeptical of Liu’s accessment, casting it as a move to “exonerate the government of its responsibility to tackle chronic air pollution,” SCMP reported.
So, what measures can the government undertake when also trying to maintain GDP growth? Well, one Dutch designer, Daan Roosegarde, has made headlines this year with his innovative way of addressing Beijing’s air pollution problem — installing the largest air purifier in the world, which turns smog into diamonds.
In spite of the Roosegarde’s well-intentioned efforts, Liu Guozheng, the general Secretary of the China Forum of Environmental Journalists, said that the tower only addresses the symptoms of air pollution, not the cause, CRI reports. The same thing presumably goes for smog bricks.
While the government is trying to come up with more long-term strategies to reduce emissions and the likelihood of “natural meteorological disasters,” the classic Chinese entrepreneurial spirit has rubbed off on Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British expat who spotted a “surprising gap” in the market, and has started selling canned Beijing air for a very reasonable 25 RMB to counter the thriving market for cans of fresh Australian air in China.
After doing business in Beijing for 20 years, he could probably do with the extra cash to help pay for his inevitable medical costs.
By Seamus Gibson
[Images via NetEase / The Standard]