Tuesday, 8 December 2015

China’s Red Alert on Air Pollution Puts Focus on Regulators

Traffic thinned and construction sites went silent on Tuesday as the Chinese capital carried out its highest-level pollution alert for the first time, a move experts said marked official acknowledgment of public perception that previous bouts of bad air had been played down.
City officials restricted industrial production and urged schools to shut their doors among other three-day emergency measures enacted on Tuesday after the city issued what it calls a red alert over pollution levels. Beijing’s more-than-20 million area residents were told to wear face masks outside. Cars with odd-numbered license plates were ordered off the road, while 800 additional public buses and 50 extra subway trains were mustered to take up the slack.
Subways were packed with passengers as a gray mist blocked the sun and turned familiar landmarks into shadows. Many parents struggled with what to do with children bouncing around at home. Jean Liu, a 40-year-old education worker, said she kept her 6-year-old daughter home, but most of her daughter’s classmates went to school, which stayed open, because their parents couldn’t take time off. “Their circumstances just don’t permit it, even if they want to,” Ms. Liu said.
The air-quality index topped 300 by Tuesday afternoon, a level the Chinese government deems “heavily polluted.” By contrast, the air-quality index in the New York City area at the same time was 49. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said an index reading above 300 is “extremely rare” in the U.S. and generally occurs only during events such as forest fires.
But Beijing’s pollution as of late Tuesday still hadn’t reached the levels the city saw last week, when pollution levels went off the chart. During that five-day stretch city officials issued an orange alert, which restricts some economic activity but keeps traffic and other activities largely untouched.
The government’s refusal to issue a red alert last week led to the frustration of many mask-wearing residents, who vented their anger on social media and widely circulated photos of smog-darkened skies.
Past official reluctance isn’t surprising, said Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a private group that tracks pollution. Citing Tuesday’s red alert, he said, “just think, to stop half the cars in a city like this—the social and economic cost is very high.”
“So many people had been raising questions then that this time I think there’s some new thinking, that even if there are some uncertainties about the weather forecast, we should still follow the criteria,” Mr. Ma said.
Beijing’s environmental bureau didn’t respond to a request for comment. State media cited an official with the municipal environmental-monitoring center as saying that the alert hadn’t been raised last week because forecasts showed the thick smog lifting soon.
The website of the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said leaders convened two days of meetings starting Sunday to discuss emergency smog measures. According to notices posted by the site, minister Chen Jining urged local environmental agencies to “earnestly reflect” on areas where past emergency measures may have been inadequate. It also said officials would investigate and hold accountable those who didn’t respond in a timely fashion.
One reason to refrain from a red alert last week may have been Chinese President Xi Jinping’s participation in climate talks in Paris, said John Nagle, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies Chinese environmental law.
“The fact that the capital city is engulfed in a particularly bad bout of air pollution can’t be something they want the world to be paying attention to while these negotiations are going on,” Mr. Nagle said. “It just makes them look bad.”
Beijing recently made it easier to trigger pollution alerts, said Mr. Ma of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Previously, Beijing was required to issue such an alert if pollution levels above 300 AQI were forecast to last at least three days. Earlier this year, that requirement was reduced to 200 AQI.
During last week’s intense bout of pollution, the local air-quality index surpassed 200 between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1, though it dipped below that level for brief periods, according to government data. At times it surpassed 500, the top limit of China’s air-quality index.
Chinese online platforms appeared to be reining back criticism on Tuesday, with far fewer comments being posted on material about the red alert than during last week’s strong pollution. One exception was from the China Daily newspaper, which posted photos of street sweepers and policemen working in smoggy weather and calling on them for praise.
Air quality improved in Beijing over much of the year, due in part to the slowing economy and to measures to consolidate and upgrade polluting industries in the surrounding areas. But smog has worsened during the past two months, highlighting what experts said is the uphill battle officials face in cleaning up north China’s skies during winter.
Meanwhile, some local companies are looking to drum up business. Craft brewery Jing-A Brewing Co. continued its tradition of discounting its Airpocalypse Double IPA according to the air quality. When the air-quality index hits 300, for example, the brewery knocks the price down 30%.
While the discounts were once capped at 40%, the brewery this month will give the beer out free if the index tops 1,000, said Richard Ammerman, a 25-year-old spokesman. “We thought it would be the fair thing to do,” he said. “We figured we could take a bit of a loss for the sake of people drinking more.”

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