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Beijing air pollution

Officials must be fully committed to clearing the air

Half-measures and temporary fixes are not the solution to tackling the nation’s serious air pollution; now is the time to find an effective long-term answer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 2:59am

A capital city is the symbolic face and heart of a nation. The smog regularly shrouding Beijing during winter therefore does a disservice to China’s image and worryingly for citizens, endangers health. Authorities enact tough anti-pollution measures when the need arises. Despite the problem occurring annually, an effective long-term strategy has yet to be put in place.

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The consequences were chokingly evident when the year’s first red alert for hazardous air pollution was issued earlier this month. There is no higher warning level in the mainland’s four-tier system. Schools were closed and with visibility at times cut to less than 200 metres, flights in Beijing and surrounding Hebei (河北) province were hit and some highways shut. Swathes of the nation’s north and east were covered, affecting one-seventh of the population.

Officials forced more than a thousand factories to stop production and half of all vehicles were ordered off the roads. But the smog also comes from sources that are not so easily dealt with. Heavily polluting coal still accounts for 80 per cent of the nation’s electricity. Boilers and stoves that provide heating are often fuelled by coal, wood and waste materials that further contribute to smog.

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Part-measures do not work effectively, as those taken last week proved; levels of the smallest and most dangerous pollution particles, 2.5 microns or less in diameter, at times still hit or hovered near the maximum reading of 500. The most vulnerable citizens are the less affluent, who are unable to afford expensive air filtering systems in their homes. Business people and tourists are at such times deterred from visiting.

Strict, temporary pollution-cutting measures can clear the air, as during the Olympic Games in 2008. But power and heating needs cannot be so readily restricted. Funding allocated in 2013 to tackle the problem in northern regions including Beijing and Tianjin (天津) was sometimes misused. Ambitious plans for the capital were recently put forward that take in coal-free zones in surrounding districts, although implementation will not begin until late next year.

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China is a key participant in the Paris climate change accord and has far-reaching long-term goals to cut polluting emissions through using clean energy sources. Clearing the smog in Beijing and other cities will be proof of success. But that requires local officials being committed to enacting plans and putting the environment ahead of economic growth. It is about more than image; the health of the capital and the nation are also at stake.