Beijing Air This Winter Becomes Frightening

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city. In a different take, this column examines the current experiences of other cities.

By Bob Wyss

Today the world’s air is killing us.

While that remains true in the U.S., it is especially the case in China and India. The World Health Organization reported that about 4.3 million people die of air pollution every year. About 1.5 million of those deaths are in China, another 1.3 million in India, and the two countries together account for nearly two thirds of all global fatalities.

How serious is the epidemic? Nature recently reported that more people now die of air pollution than malaria and HIV combined.

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis and other industrialized urban areas in North America and Europe suffered fatalities primarily from burning coal each winter. Here is what has been happening just in the last few months in China.

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Commuters in Beijing wait for a bus last Nov. 30 as the air pollution worsened to the point where some began wearing face masks.  AP Photo

Beijing issued the first of two red alerts in December, the first since it adopted a system to warn residents when the air simply became too dangerous. Schools closed, half of the city’s vehicles were ordered off the roads, and factories shut.

Some experts called the first alert a watershed moment, no Chinese community had ever ordered such drastic measures since the alert system was adopted in 2014.

Even as the pollution worsened in late November visitors to Beijing were alarmed at the extent of the haze.

“My train is approaching Beijing soon,” an internet user only identified as Damo wrote on the website Aqicn.org. “Oh God, I see the legendary haze. It is suffocating.”

China Daily in its news report at the same time talked to Tang Ying, a tourist from Shenzhen. “I had heard that Beijing’s air pollution was severe,” he said. “But I never thought it was this bad. It’s meaningless to live here, no matter how much I can earn.”

But the problem is not confined to Beijing. The Chinese Ministry of Environment Protection reported in January that the vast majority of the nation’s 330 largest urban areas had serious air pollution problems, according to measurements taken the last year. The only region with relatively safe air was in the mountainous region of Tibet. The worst problems were in the North and Northeast where both the population and industrialism were high.

The New York Times reported that even as Beijing was issuing its first red alert over air pollution on Dec. 10, other cities were continuing to ignore the problem. Many of them had air that was even more hazardous than Beijing’s, yet citizens were still going to work and schools were open.

Those familiar with Chinese policies said that local officials often feel pressure to maintain the social norms, which includes striving to boost economic growth.

“Every city is fighting its own game,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental agency, told the Times. “It’s still very hard to trust what the others are talking about. We need a new level of transparency if we want to coordinate this regional pollution control.”

But clearly Beijing, a city of 20 million and the seat of the Communist government, was growing fed up just as citizens in the U.S. had 75 years ago.

On Jan. 23 the issue of the city’s continuing air pollution was the major subject as the Beijing’s Peoples Congress convened.

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As traffic snarls and the air thickens on a Beijing thoroughfare the evening of Nov. 30, 2015 a giant television screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Paris climate change talks.  AP Photo

The city cannot control some of its pollution, which blows in at times from neighboring industrial areas. Yet it is vowing to do what it can, according to a recent report in China Daily.

Some of the worst air pollution occurs each winter from coal-burning stoves in individual homes and businesses. That is identical to the issue faced by St. Louis and other cities.

In early January Beijing environment officials announced they would work to somehow get rid of what could be millions of these small stoves.

It is a Herculean task. But it has been done elsewhere in the past.

Next week: India.

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