China / China

City struggles in war against smog

By Zhang Chunyan, Wu Wencong and Peng Yining (China Daily) Updated: 2013-01-18 11:19

After record levels of air pollution, Beijing looks for ways to help it breathE more easily

For many years Peking duck and Peking Opera were probably the two most famous items named after the capital.

However, the heavy smog and haze that enveloped the city on the weekend of Jan 11-13 - pushing the pollution index to a record high - has given birth to a much less illustrious term, Beijing cough.

On his Sina Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging platform, John Ross, a former adviser of ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone and who now lives in Shanghai, said he was reminded of the Great Smog of 1952 in London. That claimed 4,000 lives over two weeks and 8,000 more in the following months.

Thomas Unnasch, a medical professor in San Francisco, spoke of Los Angeles in the 1960s, even though the city's air at the time was cleaner than during the period of severe air pollution, known locally as the "gas attack", which caused 2,000 traffic accidents in a single day in 1954.

The recent heavy smog in Beijing has not only prompted comparisons between the Western cities and the Chinese capital, but led to questions on how China's cities can learn from London and Los Angeles in tackling pollution.

Related to the rapid rise in coal consumption and an increase in vehicle exhaust emission, the density of PM2.5 - air particles smaller than 2.5 microns and able to enter the lungs and even the blood stream - climbed higher than 900 micrograms per cubic meter in several districts in the capital, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center said. That is the highest level recorded since Beijing began publishing the data early last year.

The World Health Organization considers the safe daily level to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Worse, the problem has now become a national phenomenon. On Jan 12, levels of PM2.5 passed 300 micrograms per cubic meter in 33 of the 74 cities with systems equipped to monitor the particles.

"My friends and I have started to make jokes along the lines of 'Right now, it's healthier to smoke in Beijing than to breathe the air'," says Camille Chanlair, a French national who has lived in the city since 2008. "They all avoid going out when they see the pollution. Some have bought air purifiers."

Richard Saint Cyr, a general practitioner at a private hospital in Beijing, posted a warning on his micro blog before he left work on the evening of Jan 12:

"This is no joke, people! This is serious stuff. You should not be outside right now with your children. Everyone should be taking it easy and avoid going outside."

Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at London University's King's College, says Beijing suffers from both London's old problem of coal-fired power stations and London's new pollution problem - traffic.

"To improve air quality, the Chinese authorities will need to tackle both of these problems," he says.

Experts say the intensity of pollution China faces today is not as severe as the US and Britain experienced 50 to 60 years ago, but the scale is much larger and the causes are far more complicated.

When the developed countries tackled air pollution caused by burning coal, industrial pollution was not a big problem, and so they could deal with the problem incrementally, says Ming Dengli, head of the international cooperation office at the Beijing environmental bureau.

The battle against PM2.5 and ozone pollution started at a very late stage in the process. It took London about 20 years to lose the title "The City of Fog" following the enactment of the Clean Air Act 1956. By comparison, China is still facing severe smog and haze 40 years after relevant laws were introduced.

Norman Pritchard, English teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University, remembers well the great smog of 1952. He was 12 at the time, living in the suburbs of London, and a cyclist, as he still is in Beijing.

"I can remember clearly not being able to see across to the other side of our road, though I do not remember any breathing difficulty, probably because, having been brought up in those conditions, I was not so immediately sensitive to them.

"Same thing in Beijing. It has to be really bad before we begin to notice it," he says.

Michael Gibbons, chairman of the World Energy Council's UK member committee, believes China can learn from the measures taken in Europe against urban smog.

"The British authorities, alongside the European authorities, brought in a series of clean-air laws, which put limits on polluting organizations.

"As a consequence, enormous changes occurred in the second half of the 20th century. These pieces of legislation can be a lesson for China."

China's Vice-Premier Li Keqiang pledged on Tuesday that China will strengthen the enforcement of environmental laws, and take other measures to tackle air pollution.

"We published accurate PM2.5 data," he said. "It took a long time for this problem to accumulate, and it will take a long time to solve it. But we must act. We have to strengthen the enforcement of environmental laws and other regulations and remind the public to protect themselves."

Last weekend's pollution prompted Beijing's municipal government to put its emergency plan, unveiled on Dec 14, into action for the first time.

"Warnings have been released to the public through channels such as micro blogs, television and radio, urging people to reduce the amount of time they spend outdoors and to increase their use of public transport.

"Schools are being advised to arrange fewer outdoor activities for the children," said a post on the official micro blog of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

It also emphasized that the government will "strengthen law enforcement and the frequency of inspections, ask the relevant factories and plants to reduce emissions and arrange a 30 percent reduction in the use of official vehicles".

The bureau said on the evening of Jan 13, 54 businesses in Beijing had cut their emissions by 30 percent, 28 construction sites had stopped foundation work, Beijing Hyundai Motor Co temporarily halted production on Sunday, and one production line had been suspended at Beijing Cement Plant Co.

The municipal government has been taking measures to cut coal consumption in the city for a number of years. About 700,000 metric tons of coal was saved in last year alone, due to projects that changed to forms of clean energy.

More than 300,000 old vehicles that failed to meet the city's emission standard were taken off the roads in last year.

Regarding industrial pollution, the ultimate measure may be to ship it to somewhere else, according to Gerard Kuperus, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of San Francisco.

"China is today producing most of our electronics and consumer products," he says.

"Providing electricity for such large-scale production creates massive pollution. In a sense, the way in which the US and Europe solved part of their pollution problem is now causing pollution in other parts of the world, such as China.

"As we ship our products from China, we have, so to speak, shipped part of our air pollution to that part of the world. While China has seen tremendous economic growth, the people are paying for it with their health."

Chen Jia, Tang Yue and Cui Jia contributed to this story.

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