Beijing air quality at "hazardous" levels

Updated On: Nov 01, 2011

Air pollution in the Chinese capital Beijing reached "hazardous" levels on Monday, according to the US Embassy. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world mainly due to its growing energy consumption, with coal-fired power stations feeding much of the energy supply, and the large number of cars on the road.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) climbed to the "hazardous" level, reaching 425 on Sunday, according to the US Embassy in Beijing. Over 200 flights were cancelled and six highways were closed after visibility dropped below 100 metres in certain areas of the city.

Weather conditions, traffic and coal-burning power plants are responsible for the capital’s pollution, with high-polluting coal-fired boilers and stoves as the main cause as Beijing’s energy consumption increases, even as the government promised to improve air quality by replacing coal energy sources with clean energy equipment. The pollution is expected to worsen as northern China begins to use coal for heating within two weeks.

The smog hit its highest level on 9 October, when the reading hit the maximum level of 500 for several hours, 20 times higher than the safe standards issued by the World Health Organisation, with the US Embassy describing the pollution as "beyond index". The Embassy’s automated index called it "crazy bad", a term which US diplomats quickly removed so as not to offend the Chinese government, which uses a different pollution measurement and has said that Beijing’s air quality has improved in recent years.

The US Embassy’s evaluation of Beijing’s air quality often significantly differs from the official Chinese rating. China's environment ministry said on Sunday that Beijing's air for 9 October was "slightly polluted" which triggered a debate in China's state-run media and on the Internet. Beijing residents expressed their fears over impacts to their health online, with some reporting breathing difficulties and dizziness.

Report: Bad air days in Beijing (Straits Times (Paper), 1 Nov 2011)

Report: Beijing air pollution 'hazardous': US embassy (Economic Times, 1 Nov 2011)

The Chinese government did make significant effort to clean up the air for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. The Beijing government moved large steelworks out of the capital, switched city dwellers from coal to natural gas heating, increased emissions standards for trucks and created new subway and bus lines. The cost for these efforts was estimated at $10 billion excluding investment in mass transit.

Today, a large part in the differences between the US and Chinese readings is due in part to the size of the particles that they are monitoring. Chinese monitoring stations measure particulates of up to 10 micrometres in size. The concentration of these particles has dropped due to reforestation programs that lessen dust storms blowing in from the deserts. Sulphur dioxide emissions were also reduced by limiting coal heating and implementing more stringent emission standards.

However, the US monitors smaller particulates of up to 2.5 micrometres, which physicians say can penetrate lungs and other organs. Car and truck emissions are major sources of fine particulates, and with the number of registered cars booming from 3.5 million in 2008 to 5 million, the problem of fine particulates in the Beijing air is mounting.  

Nonetheless, the Beijing Environmental Department reported 286 "blue sky" days in 2010, up from 274 in 2008. The Chinese are known to be sensitive about criticism of Beijing’s air quality, especially from Americans. In July 2009, a Foreign Ministry official protested that US data in conflict with China's were causing "confusion" and undesirable "social consequences".

Report: US Embassy air quality data undercut China's own assessments (LA Times, 29 Oct 2011)

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