China’s choking air pollution which has been in and out of the news for months, is back in the news this week as Beijing and large areas of northern and central China face a fifth day shrouded in dangerous smog, the likes of which haven’t been seen for months and relief from which isn’t expected for days to come.
The orange pollution alert, the first to be issued since the current pollution monitoring system was established in October, remained in effect for Beijing on Monday.
Beijing issued a yellow pollution alert on Thursday, which was upgraded to orange on Friday, prompting city authorities to order 36 Beijing manufacturers to halt production and another 75 to reduce production in an attempt to clear the air a little.
An orange alert — heavy to serious pollution — is issued when the air quality index (AQI) spikes to between 200 and 300 alternately for three consecutive days. AQI is a measure of the concentration of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, in the air. PM2.5, which refers to particulate matter with a diameter of no more than 2.5 microns, is the most dangerous to human health and has recently been designated as a carcinogen. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 of no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
In response to the orange alert, children and the elderly were advised to stay indoors and to wear masks while going out. Residents were also urged to take public transport and reduce driving. Schools were advised to move outdoor activities indoors.
China Daily reported that residents are heeding the official alerts. The Summer Palace, a popular park, has seen a 20 percent drop in visitor numbers for the past week compared to the same time last year, while the Beijing Museum of Natural History, an indoor venue, was at full capacity on Saturday. Over at the Beijing Olympic Park, many runners participating in an annual race wore masks, including gas masks while competing.
“The only option for us is to stay at home, with the air purifier on 24 hours a day,” Zhou Ying, a Beijing mother of a 3-year-old, told China Daily. China National Radio also reported that the number of asthma and emphysema patients seeking help at Beijing hospitals had doubled since the smog first settled in on Thursday.
At a conference in Beijing on Saturday, China’s climate change advisor spoke frankly about the country’s battle with pollution.
“China’s pollution is at an unbearable stage,” Li Junfeng, director general of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said at the conference. “It’s like a smoker who needs to quit smoking at once otherwise he will risk getting lung cancer.”
On Sunday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that it was sending twelve teams of inspectors to some of the cities hardest-hit by the recent air pollution, including Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei province. The inspectors will visit construction sites and factories to ensure that they are not violating production standards.
Last week, the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing how China could transition to an 80 percent renewable electric power system by 2050.
The transition would cut the currently-projected 2050 carbon emissions from power generation in the country by as much as 90 percent.
The report, prepared for WWF by the Energy Transition Research Institute (Entri), says that for China to achieve this ambitious goal the country would need to create a Chinese version of the U.S. Clean Air Act, put into place strict emissions standards on existing fossil fuel plants, ban new coal plants and phase out coal completely by 2040. China would also need to instate high carbon taxes and new emissions trading schemes and electricity market reform.
While these are certainly big steps that the country would have to implement quickly, the report says that they would not have to compromise the reliability of the electric grid or slow economic growth. In fact, the costs may be far less than continuing to rely on coal and paying for the public health consequences the dirty fuel inflicts.
“By fully embracing energy conservation, efficiency and renewables, China has the potential to demonstrate to the world that economic growth is possible while sharply reducing the emissions that drive unhealthy air pollution and climate change,” said WWF’s China Climate and Energy Program Director Lunyan Lu in a press release.
China currently relies on coal for about 70 percent of its power generation. If the country continues on its current track, China will be dumping 4 billion tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere every year.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection last month issued China’s local authorities targets to cut levels of major air pollutants 5 percent to 25 percent by 2017 as compared with 2012 levels.