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Dangerous smog smothers northern China

December 19, 2015

Beijing has been hit by a blanket of dangerous smog as authorities issued a red alert for the second time this month. The smog highlights the dangerous reliance of China on dirty coal.

China Beijing Smog
Image: Getty Images/K. Frayer

Factories closed down, schools shut and half of cars were taken off Beijing's normally traffic-clogged roads on Saturday in an attempt to cut levels of stifling smog engulfing northern China.

The government issued the second red alert this month after the city's environmental protection office predicted that high levels of particle pollution would envelop the capital of 22.5 million people and surrounding areas until at least Tuesday.

Levels of PM 2.5, tiny and dangerous airborne particles, rose to as high as 303 in parts of Beijing on Saturday and could rise as high as 500 over the coming days. China issues a red alert when particle levels are expected to rise above 200 for more than 72 hours.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exposure to no more than 25 in a 24-hour period, while the US Embassy deems 200 to be "very unhealthy."

China Peking Smog
Face masks are now a common item of apparel in BeijingImage: Reuters/K. Kyung-Hoon

Support and criticism

Many Beijing residents supported the government's measures to reduce air pollution. This comes as the perception grows that since a smog rating system was introduced two years ago, authorities had avoided issuing a red alert in order to not impact economic activity.

Others criticized the alert after smog levels in some parts of the city registered at near 100, which is below the level that would normally trigger such a warning in China, though still well above what is considered healthy by the WHO.

"I'm loving this traffic! Finally we can get around the second ring-road without getting stuck in a jam," one user on the social network Weibo joked.

"The smog is not so bad. Why do they have driving restrictions?" complained another Weibo user.

China's coal problem

The smog is caused largely by coal-fired heating of homes and power generation during the winter, and by emissions from factories and cars.

The pollution that has come alongside China's economic growth is also a source of popular discontent with the government. High levels of air pollution have been linked to premature deaths and disease, including heart attacks, stroke, cancer and lung diseases.

Germany's Max Planck Institute has published a study in "Nature" magazine estimating that some 1.4 million people die prematurely in China each year because of pollution.

The smog highlights the difficulties China may face balancing a growing economy with pledges to curb greenhouse gases and pursue greener energy. China is the world's biggest carbon emitter, and has said it plans to upgrade coal power plants over the next five years as part of its climate change obligations.

China has pledged to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 as part of a global climate deal reached in Paris earlier this month, but that would still allow the Asian giant to increase emissions for another decade and a half.

cw/tj (AFP, AP, Reuters)