Climate

What It’s Like To Live In Beijing Under Hazardous Levels Of Air Pollution

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A woman covers her face with a mask as she rushes to a subway station on a heavily polluted day in Beijing Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The air in Beijing is so polluted that Meng Han’s nostrils get filled with black dust after just a couple of hours outdoors.

“Sometimes I [wear a] mask, but I understand it totally does not work,” said Han in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Generally, I will do something as fast as possible if I have to go outside.”

But this weekend Han is not going out at all, she said, as the Ministry of Environmental Protection and China Meteorological Administration jointly issued a red alert of heavy air pollution Friday. This is the second time ever that Beijing residents have experienced a red alert for pollution, and it points to an alarming trend for a city of more than 20 million that went through its first red alert last week.

Back then schools closed, construction halted, and driving restrictions were put in place, according to published reports. This time a similar protocol is expected. Visibility is expected to be an issue as well, as it could drop down to less than a mile and possibly be as bad as 200 yards in some areas, Al Jazeera reported.

Alarming levels of air pollution are bad news not just to Beijing, but for surrounding areas as well — pollution is expected to reach even coastal cities like Tianjin. Still, the worst weather conditions will be seen in some parts of southern Beijing and nearby southern towns. Pollution is expected to be at its worst starting Saturday and won’t weaken until December 23.

“It is so terrible [because] I just heard that air quality both in the room and outside are the same,” said Han, who noted her husband had gone to bed with the $1,000 air purifier running. “I am so scared about air pollution.”

Studies have found that that at least a third of the population of China breathes air deemed “unhealthy” by U.S. standards — air that kills as many as 1.6 million people every year. People reached in China who have experienced heavy air pollution there said that you can feel the dust on your face and in your mouth.

“I do not know how to deal with the air quality,” said Han, a 36-year-old photographer.

The environmental ordeals China faces can be problematic for the United States too, according to recent research. Chinese pollution, research has found, can blow across the ocean and increase the concentration of sulfate in West Coast air.

In 2006, pollution from China caused Los Angeles to experience an extra day of unhealthy smog levels, according to a 2015 study. It remains to be seen how and if the recent Chinese red alerts will affect the United States in the coming months.

China is the world’s largest coal burner and accounts for about half of the world’s total coal consumption. Coal is primarily burned for electricity generation and is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides. The United States is the second biggest coal consuming country in the world.

Studies have linked sources of Chinese fine particulate matter pollution to sulfur, suggesting most of the pollution is from coal. However, Beijing’s air quality might be improving. Air pollution fell by 13 percent over the first quarter of 2015, according to a Greenpeace study.

China has been trying to cut down on its air pollution and curb some of its greenhouse gas emissions for some time. Some Chinese cities have been investing heavily in renewable energy, and last year, the country said it would peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, promising to increase the share of energy it gets from non-fossil fuel sources to about 20 percent by the same year. The country also pledged to cap its coal use by 2020.

That announcement came after the breakthrough emissions reduction deal Chinese President Xi Jinping declared alongside President Obama. China said then it would make best efforts to peak its emissions before 2030.

Indeed, it is possible that China will fulfill its promises. China’s coal use fell by nearly 8 percent in the first four months of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to analysis by Greenpeace’s Energydesk team. The study suggests China’s coal use may have peaked ahead of schedule.

But while signs of improvement can be found right and left, Beijing residents like Han are suffering from years of environmental pollution and assessing how to cope with it.

“I believe that I will [fly] to other cities to stay a short time” if it’s affordable, she said, but then noted that fleeing pollution permanently is unlikely because “my parents still live in Tianjin, [and] they are getting older. My responsibility is that I have to take care of them. By the way, Beijing and Tianjin are very close, just 1 hour to drive.”