Beijing's long battle for clearer skies

Beijing's long battle for clearer skies
A visitor waves a Chinese national flag as people wait for a flag raising ceremony at the Tiananmen Square amid heavy smog in Beijing, China, December 1, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

This year's worst air pollution in Beijing once again demonstrated the necessity for China to address its environmental challenges with immediate and unprecedented efforts.

For a vast developing country like China to succeed in the war against pollution, it requires not only firm and long-term government commitments to reduce all kinds of pollutants but also efforts to rally as much public support as possible.

Chinese cities such as Beijing, which have benefited a lot from the country's rapid urbanisation and industrialisation over the past decades, are therefore obliged to blaze a trail in mobilising and making the most efficient use of their resources to cut pollution and minimise the environmental damage.

Unfortunately, the clumsy and inadequate response of local officials to tackle the persistent toxic air that soared above hazardous levels for several days in Beijing indicates the country still has much to do to make itself a smart fighter in the environment crisis.

The arrival of a cold front on Tuesday night may have answered the wishes of the 20-plus million residents who desperately wanted the hazardous smog that had engulfed the city for days to go, but it is proving an uphill struggle to tackle the causes.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre explained that increased use of coal for heating during winter and an unfortunate combination of weather conditions helped trap pollutants closer to the ground. These were the main factors behind the frightening levels of PM2.5, airborne particles that measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Given unpredictable weather conditions and the fairly long time it will take for China to shift away from its heavy reliance on coal as the major source of energy, it is unrealistic to expect immediate effects in reducing such smog.

Nevertheless, the dire fact that readings of the tiny PM2.5 particles, which are especially harmful to human health, have reached more than tens of times the safe level set by the World Health Organisation should justify a smarter emergency response than a stubborn insistence on issuing only an orange alert, instead of the red alert that is currently reserved for more than 72 hours of the heaviest level of air pollution.

It is unclear why local officials failed to issue the highest level of alert as the readings soared off the charts. They may have wanted to avoid the inconvenience and cost of reduced traffic and production activities, or the embarrassment of a red alert that would bear testimony to the serious air pollution problem in the Chinese capital. But no excuse can justify the inadequate response at a time when the people are exposed to such dangerous levels of air pollution.

By issuing a first red alert, more than half cars in the city would be banned from the roads every day and many factories and construction sites would be ordered to reduce or stop work.

If there is a silver lining in the heavy smog, it should be the emerging chance that policymakers can seize to galvanise as much public support as possible and the public's participation in what promises to be a long hard fight against air pollution.

Beijing's determination to introduce the world's strictest emissions standards in 2017 and subsidise energy-saving household appliances in the coming three years all speak of the municipal government's commitment to ending the long-term growth of pollution.

But in the face of pollution crises such as the recent smog, policymakers must show more common sense and flexibility in responding adroitly and adequately to the situation rather than sticking to the regulations word for word.

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