Beijing Prepares for Another Red Alert Over Smog

Smog Hangs Over Beijing In Year's Heaviest Round Of Air Pollution
A pedestrian wearing a face mask walks past the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters building shrouded in haze in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Dec. 1. 2015. The round of air pollution that began last week is the heaviest of 2015, the Beijing environmental protection bureau said on its official microblog Tuesday. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photography by Qilai Shen — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Beijing, a city of 22 million people and 5 million cars, today issued its second red alert ever for smog to prepare people for a stretch of dangerously polluted days.

The red alert is a kind of emergency button to keep dangerous levels of smog from rising to truly catastrophic—and ultimately embarrassing the country’s leadership, when the pictures spread across the world. On Friday, the government seemed to be trying to get ahead of the bad news in other ways: the Ministry of Environmental Protection said 10 company officials were detained in the country for falsifying pollution data or faking environmental checks.

The skies in Beijing were blue on Thursday and Friday, but forecasts called for little wind over the weekend, which coupled with the inputs of coal-fired power plants and heavy industry in the city’s surrounding provinces, has recently raised the level of air pollutants to between 10 and 20 times what the World Health Organization calls healthy.

Beijing has suffered from a series of dangerous smog spells this year. The first came after Thanksgiving, then another a week later over a three-day stretch. Now the red alert covers one that is forecast to begin at 7a.m. Saturday through midnight on Tuesday.

The alert sets forth policies to mitigate expected smog from worsening. Half the city’s cars are banned from roads on alternating days, high-polluting businesses are shuttered, and a third of government vehicles are ordered to stay off the roads. Meanwhile, the alert is the planning equivalent for parents of a snow day: the city’s public schools are advised to cancel classes on Monday and Tuesday.

There is no end in sight for the spells of bad air in Beijing or any of China’s major northern cities, which rely on dirty coal for energy. Ninety-five percent of public heating in Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, is derived from coal. A 30% cut in heating emissions would have the biggest positive effect on air quality in the Beijing region, according to research from the Paulson Institute.

In all of China, coal burning is responsible for about 45% of PM 2.5 particles, the tiny carcinogenic particles composing smog; car emissions, and construction and industry, only account for 20% each.

The small moves as part of the red alert pale in comparison to the bigger problem. According to a report released in August by research group Berkeley Earth, air pollution is contributing to an average of 4,000 deaths a day, or 1.6 million a year, in China.

Smog’s symptoms can be addressed by red alerts, but China’s reforms away from coal are needed to address the cause, and those have been slower to appear.

But if there is a chink of light through the gloomy blanket of haze, it’s that China’s industrial slowdown and the rebalancing of its economy away from heavy industry may stop the problem getting markedly worse in the medium-term. In a report issued Friday, the International Energy Agency said Chinese coal demand was set to fall for the second year in a row in 2015–the first time that’s happened in over 30 years. The IEA speculated that China may already have passed its “peak coal” moment, and said if policymakers build on current trends, the country’s coal demand could fall nearly 10% from its 2013 peak already by 2030.

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