Tip to stay healthy in Beijing, much of China: don’t breathe

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Beijing’s pollution in my blog. How the grey had covered the blue in a thick haze of smog. The air cleared up for a few days only to return earlier this week with a vengeance usually reserved for revenge.

Frankly, I have never seen pollution like this. I say this with a sense of choked pride as I come from a city not quite known for its filtered fresh air – Kolkata – and worked in a city for 12 years known for having the largest number of vehicles in the country and hence, many say, eye-watering levels of pollution – New Delhi.

But this, Beijing smog seems a different animal: it’s alive and breathlessly sucking in air from its citizens while on its way to becoming fatter, healthier. The smog seems to be clinging on to the buildings, homes, offices, vehicles and people as if without them, it will fade away.

Imagine a cloud-covered, grey, rainy day in India during the Monsoon; for the last three days, the colour of the sky over Beijing is exactly like that. But that’s where the similarity ends.

There’s every chance that the situation could worsen. The Chinese New Year is coming up on February 10. Bursting firecrackers is an intrinsic part of the celebrations. Like in India, bursting of crackers in China is associated with warding off evil spirits. Delhiites complain of bad air after one-two days of cracker bursting during Diwali.

Here, crackers are likely to go off for a week with the New Year eve being the main time for lighting up. It’s a beautiful spectacle at night when the sky splits up in various shapes and lights. But the aftermath is not very healthy. If not for the lights and sound, evil spirits will be warded off by the acrid pollution for sure.

But, fortunately for evil spirits, calls are being made to cut down on crackers this time.

On Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, nearly 40,000 posts over the last 24 hours have discussed reducing the use of fireworks during the Spring Festival or New Year.

Some 2,000 bloggers, according to state media, said on Weibo that they will set off fewer firecrackers this year for the sake of air quality.

“Xiaojiudeyeye,” a native of the city of Qingdao in east China’s Shandong province, told state-run Xinhua news agency that he hopes the city will issue a ban on firecrackers during the seven-day holiday.

In an online poll conducted by the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), nearly 70 percent of respondents said they will not set off any fireworks.

But is it really the case that firecrackers contribute that much to pollution in China? Compared to smoke-belching factories, coal-powered plants and millions and millions of vehicles, how much pollution is triggered by crackers? Instead of individuals, the government should be focusing more on large-scale sources of pollutions.

The website, Shanghaiist, quoting from the US Energy Information Administration, said China consumes nearly 50 percent of the world’s coal production.

“China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87 percent of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82 percent).

Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200 percent increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4 percent and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1 percent,” the website said.

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