The worsening air quality in much of China last week should serve as a wake-up call that the severity of its pollution woes may have been greatly underestimated, environmentalists warn.
More than a dozen provinces were smothered by a dense, almost suffocating, smog yesterday, with pollution readings in many areas plunging to the worst levels in years.
Although authorities have launched contingency plans, including alerting people about health risks and warning them against going outdoors via television and microblogs, environmentalists say the government is still missing opportunities to tackle the pollution problem and protect people's health.
Greenpeace campaigner Zhou Rong says many people find the health warnings abstract and confusing.
Ma Jun , director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, is frustrated that a key part of the country's emergency plan has not been implemented, even though the Air Quality Index (AQI) has hit its maximum of 500.
"It said when AQI exceeds 300, children and students should not be organised into groups to take part in outdoor sports activities, but unfortunately no such bans were reported recently," Ma said. "It is no secret that our way of development is not sustainable and the total pollution emissions in the region have far exceeded the maximum ecological capacity."
Although the government has admitted that air pollution is a regional woe rather than a headache that affects only the capital or individual cities, Ma said authorities had yet to find effective ways to make them work together to tackle it.
Despite the brief, temporary respite in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, when provinces around Beijing closed polluting factories to help disperse the capital's persistent smog, air quality in and around Beijing and Tianjin has seen a marked decline.
Zhou said the biggest hole in the central government's anti-pollution campaign was the lack of regional consensus on how to act jointly on the problem. "Unless they can join hands and find a common solution, I don't think we'll see real improvement in air quality," Zhou said.
The new leadership, led by Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang , should intervene and tackle the smog issue, Zhou said.