Beijing smog: The warning system is there and authorities must use it, for everyone’s sake

Authorities’ reluctance to issue warnings stems from a mindset focused on economic growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 5:12pm

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The air pollution warning system Beijing introduced more than two years ago was all about health. But not until this week was the top alert, red, raised. That is despite readings, especially in colder months, regularly going to such levels and beyond. Residents’ concerns prompted the change and it is good that officials are finally listening. Angst about smog is such that the measure has to from now be faithfully followed.

Authorities’ reluctance to issue warnings stems from a mindset focused on economic growth. The alert put in place on Monday and effective until midday Thursday had a significant cost through forcing closure of schools and construction sites, limiting traffic and slowing down or halting work at factories. These are drastic decisions, but essential when levels are set to remain high. The central government understands that the growth-at-all-costs economic model is no longer sustainable. It is behind the pollution from factories, cheap coal for power production and vehicle-choked streets. Ridding cities of smog is a key factor in China’s push for a new global deal at the climate change summit under way in Paris. But the task ahead is enormous, particularly for Beijing’s municipal council; humidity and a lack of wind have of late exacerbated the pollution from vehicles and industrial areas in neighbouring Hebei (河北) province. Fine-particle pollution, especially dangerous to the young and elderly, has soared to levels tens of times those recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Beijingers are well aware that authorities can clear the skies when they want to: that was demonstrated in September during ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. Use of cleaner energy sources is having an effect, with data showing a slight improvement in air quality this year. Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin (天津) are working on a joint plan to combat pollution. But such measures take time and permanent blue skies remain years away. Authorities have set an example by issuing the red alert and with the health of residents in mind, have to strictly follow the rules that have been set.