After cold snap, pollution covers China

Residents of Beijing woke up on Wednesday to a welcome clear day. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. Simple pleasures, right? Not quite. It wasn’t the case for Beijing and many other cities in China the past week.

If most of China has been shivering from an unusually chilly winter this season, the sudden settling down of heavy smog over cities ensured that the first days of the New Year wasn’t exactly the most pleasant.

The city with around 20 million people and more than 5.2 million vehicles choked and gasped for fresh air as the worst haze of pollution in recent times covered it for straight four days last week, turning the sky to a constant dull grey in the mornings and a strange and dull but menacing red in the evenings and nights. Children and the elderly were asked to stay indoors and scores of factories were ordered to shut down.

It all began on Saturday. Morning came up not quite the bright way it does. Of course, it’s not unusual for it to do so in Beijing; there are days when it’s difficult to understand whether its fog or smog as day passes into night with rationed sunlight. (Beijingers say it’s mostly smog.)

But it was different on Saturday. Not a splinter of sunlight filtered down on the city through the haze. By early afternoon, I could see other apartments switching on lights inside their homes as the outside darkened.

Stepping outside, I could smell burnt air. It didn’t help that there’s coal burning power station near my apartment block. (Must admit though that without it my Bengali bones would have frozen to death in the cold long before pollution could have choked them.)

Saturday passed into Sunday. More of the same. News reports had begun to pour in about the really hazardous air that Beijing residents were breathing.

The state media was forced to report the reality of dangerous pollution as China’s millions of microbloggers vented their anger online, criticising the government.

State media reported Sunday that Beijing’s air pollution had “reached dangerous levels”

“The municipal environmental monitoring center said readings for PM2.5, or airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, had reached more than 700 micrograms per square meter at several monitoring stations in Beijing, reaching as high as 993 Saturday evening,” a report in the state-run Xinhua said.

“These figures represent extremely bad pollution. Pollutants have gradually accumulated over the course of recent windless days, making the air quality even worse,” said Zhu Tong, a professor from the college of environmental sciences and engineering at Peking University.

As of 7pm on Sunday, “the smoggy weather” topped the hot topics on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo with about 7.68 million entries calling for the air pollution control and reflections on economic growth mode and lifestyle.

Realising the seriousness of the situation and the level of concern and anger among the public, the government reacted to the situation. The state media too came out with critical reports about how pollution was clouding China’s development and could do worse for its economy and people; one article was rather innovatively titled “transparency seen through the smog.”

The government came out with some strong pledges to curb pollution; the word “vigorously” was used to mention the curbing of vehicle emission.

China will take effective measures to limit the total amount of nitrogen oxide emitted by vehicles and intensify supervision over the production, use and elimination of motor vehicles, said Tao Detian, spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection told Xinhua.

The ministry will make more efforts to step up urban public transport development and promote the use of clean energy to cut vehicle exhaust, which is the main factor contributing to the smog in cities, Tao said.

It won’t be an easy thing to do. According to data from the country’s auto industry, China remained the world’s largest producer and market for automobiles for the fourth consecutive year in 2012, with auto sales at 19.31 million units and production at 19.27 million vehicles.

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