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'Red alert' over Beijing smog

December 8, 2015

Automobiles have been restricted, residents told to limit time outdoors, and construction sites and schools closed in the Chinese capital under the first city-wide red alert for pollution.

China Smog in Peking
Image: Reuters/K. Kyung-Hoon

The Chinese government on Tuesday ordered 30 percent of vehicles off the roads, banned heavy vehicles, told schools to cancel classes and urged companies to offer flexible working hours to employees, while canceling most outdoor events.

The city-wide "red alert" follows the appearance of grey haze over the city of around 21.5 million people, though many Chinese people noted the conditions were by far not the worst recorded. Some surmised that the move reflected a change in officials' attitudes more than a change in specific pollution levels that have plagued major cities for decades.

A study led by atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld of Germany's Max Planck Institute and published this year in "Nature" magazine estimated that 1.4 million people each year die prematurely because of pollution in China.

A toxic reality of Chinese urban life

"This is modern life for Beijing people. We wanted to develop, and now we pay the price," Beijing office worker Cao Yong told the Associated Press during a break from work.

"You have to do whatever you can to protect yourself," added Beijing resident Li Huiwen while shopping at a market. "Even when wearing the mask, I feel uncomfortable and don't have any energy."

Smog has always been a public health concern in Beijing and the government's response system has come under extra scrutiny in the past week amid criticism for not issuing a red alert during an episode of heavy smog which exceeded hazardous levels.

Chinese researchers have identified pollution as a major source of unrest around the country and President Xi Jinping is in Paris at the COP-21 climate summit pushing for concrete action which helps explain the government's public posturing in response to unhealthy air quality.

China Smog in Peking
A visitor on Tiananmen Square during a flag-rising ceremony earlier in December, amid similarly heavy smogImage: picture-alliance/dpa/ChinaFotoPress

Decision applauded by environmentalists

Green campaigners have welcomed China's new attitude towards fighting pollution.

"The red alert is a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government," said Dong Liansai, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace. "However, this, the latest of a series of airpocalypses to hit Beijing, is also a firm reminder of just how much more needs to be done to ensure safe air for all."

China's greenhouse gas emissions mostly come from coal-burning power plants which produce about 60 percent of its electricity and much of its heating.

The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, in a Tuesday commentary written to coincide with the Paris climate talks, praised China's contribution to fighting climate change.

"People everywhere are looking forward to China's continuous progress on the road to green development, acting as a model for the world to tackle the challenge of climate change."

Despite the red alert order, many residents tried to circumvent the rules. State radio showed a picture on its official microblog of a policeman removing paper stuck to a vehicle's licence plate to obscure its final digit.

And in the early morning hours, hundreds of people, including small children, had packed Tiananmen Square to watch the flag-raising ceremony, according to photos by state news agency Xinhua.

Others took advantage of the unique conditions. A Beijing resident said he was taking advantage of a lack of dense crowds near the capital's historic Forbidden City to stretch his legs and take artistic photographs.

"I like this kind of haziness,” Du, who only would give his family name as he fingered his camera, told AP. “It gives a blurry feeling and makes you feel like you're in a dream.”

Readings of PM2.5 particles climbed above 300 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the city and were expected to continue rising before the air begins to improve with Thursday's arrival of a cold front. The World Health Organization designates the safe level for the toxic PM2.5 particulate matter at 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

jar/msh (AP, Reuters, AFP)