Beijing’s annual smog season has arrived earlier than expected, the government said on Sunday, suggesting the clock is now ticking if there are to be blue skies over the Chinese capital for the upcoming 19th party congress. “Combating severe air pollution needs to be made our most important job right now,” the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a statement on its website. “[However] the air condition this autumn and winter does not allow for any optimism,” it said. China’s environment watchdog reads riot act to megacity over litany of pollution failures The air quality index in Beijing has been rising steadily since Thursday, and on Saturday broke through 200, the level at which even perfectly healthy people can start to feel unwell. At an emergency meeting convened by the Beijing government on Saturday, officials vowed to reduce air pollution from factories, vehicles and even outdoor barbecue sites. While the recent rise in air pollution was not unfamiliar, the peaks had arrived earlier than in 2015 and last year, when they were not seen until mid-September, the government said. Hot, smoggy weekend for Beijing as heavy ozone pollution hits Beijing’s air pollution problem has traditionally worsened with the onset of autumn and winter, as demand for heating soars across the city and coal-fired power plants ramp up their production. Despite that trend, the ministry suggested the latest smog was caused by climate change, saying that the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic and the changing water temperature in the Pacific might have diminished the southerly winds that are needed to disperse pollutants. With the Communist Party congress – at which Xi Jinping is fully expected to be re-elected as general secretary – now just six weeks away, the authorities in Beijing are racing against time to ensure grey skies do not overshadow the biggest event in Chinese politics for the past five years. Beijing shrouded in sand and smog as authorities issue warning Environmental protection has been high on Xi’s agenda and many would-be senior post-holders are likely to be judged on their performance in helping to achieve the president’s green goals. Thousands of companies in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region have been punished in recent months for violating environmental regulations in a sweeping crackdown that began in April. “The severity of this year’s environmental protection campaign is unprecedented,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Air quality improved in the summer time, but ... there can be no let off in the effort to tackle pollution.” Beijing’s air quality ‘best’ among China’s northern cities despite frequent smog woes Authorities in the capital will be keen to ensure the party congress, expected to start on October 18, enjoys the same crystal blue skies that were seen in the capital for the APEC summit in 2014 and the 2015 military parade held to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. In the run-up to those events, the city embarked on a programme of drastic anti-pollution measures, including the temporary closure of factories and construction sites, and the imposition of strict traffic controls. Over 50 Beijing flights cancelled or delayed as sandstorms hit northern China Ma said that while those measures were introduced only about a month ahead of the respective events, the central government had this year begun ramping up its controls much earlier. This included the environment ministry setting air quality targets specifically for the autumn and winter seasons in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. In a “battle plan” unveiled last month, the ministry pledged to cut the average levels of airborne particles known as PM2.5 in the area by more than 15 per cent year on year for the October to March period. China says economy unaffected by environmental inspections As part of those efforts over the coming months, more polluting factories will be closed and outdated coal-fired heating systems will be replaced, it said. “We need to complete all the tasks ... [to] ensure continuous improvement in the air quality and welcome the ... 19th party congress with excellent results,” minister Li Ganjie said.