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Beijing declares red alert amid prolonged smog

Beijing has issued its first-ever red alert for smog, invoking restrictions that will keep half of the city's vehicles off the road. The highest-level warning was issued because the smog is expected to linger for days.

The Chinese capital issued its first-ever pollution red alert on Monday, with sweeping measures to be introduced, limiting traffic and construction activities.

From Tuesday morning only half of Beijing's private cars will be permitted on the road, with authorities introducing an odd-even license plate system for motorists. Extra public transport was being laid on to help ease the situation.

Industrial sites would have to "implement measures to limit or stop production," the city's Environmental Protection Bureau said, while outdoor construction sites would have to cease operations entirely.

Schools were urged to close, although the measures were not made mandatory by the government.

Such red alerts are issued only when severe smog is expected to last for more than 72 hours. Beijing's current four-tiered warning system has been in place since 2013, and despite frequent periods of serious smog, a red alert has not been deemed necessary until now.

Limits far exceeded

The warning came a week after the city was shrouded by a thick gray haze with high concentrations of large particulates that can be particularly damaging for health. A particulate reading of 634 micrograms of PM2.5 - particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller - dwarfed the maximum level of 25 micrograms recommended by the World Health Organization.

A study led by Germany's Max Planck Institute, published this year in "Nature" magazine, estimated that some 1.4 million people die prematurely in China each year because of the effects of pollution.

Most of the emissions are blamed on coal-fired power plants, along with vehicle emissions and construction and factory work.

As part of its climate change obligations, China - the world's biggest carbon emitter - says it plans to upgrade coal power plants over the next five years. Beijing says emissions will peak by around 2030 before starting to decline.

rc/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)