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Airpocalypse Now

The airpocalypse is upon us. Stay calm and don't breathe.


Airpocalypse Now

The airpocalypse is upon us. Stay calm and don't breathe.


Winter is coming and so the haze and darkness begins to descend upon China. The  “heating season” (i.e. air pollution season), as ever, will kick off with coughing, wheezing and headaches as coal plants are switched on for the winter. China alone consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined.

The heating systems of Harbin, in northern China, cranked to life last Sunday, and by the next day Monday, visibility in some parts of the city was not more than 20 meters. The PM2.5 index in Harbin was 40 times above the safe zone and more than three times the hazardous level of 300. Just this past Monday, the air quality in Beijing reached “severe.”

But it is not just coal-burning, or the usual suspects of car emissions, factories and the like, that are responsible for the smog. Trucks entering Beijing at night, along with street vendors, are also guilty of contributing additional pollution.

While China boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is also the leader in air pollution. Air pollution is an almost permanent phenomenon in many Chinese cities. A study by the Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University in Beijing suggests that seven of the world’s most air polluted cities are in China. And you guessed it, Beijing is chocking on record high pollution. Various studies suggest that the worsening air pollution is linked to lung cancerpremature deaths and the loss in economic productivity.

The high toxicity of China’s air is making headlines in both the local and global media. In response, the demand for masks has peaked. Even the government has publicly addressed this undeniable issue, finally. According to the Huffington Post, the government has long been indifferent to the environment as it pursued economic development.

The big final push came early this year in January when Beijing reported its worst air pollution level since 2008 when the United States Embassy started recording air quality levels. To combat what English-speaking residents have dubbed the Airpocalypse, the local and central governments have since begun launching some anti-pollution initiatives. One such air control policy includes naming and shaming the nation’s top ten worst-polluting cities each month. China hopes that national humiliation will push positive environmental action. Huang Wei of  Greenpeace China said:

“I think the policy is a very good inspirational mechanism, especially for those cities on the ‘shaming’ list, so that they can work to get off the list quicker”

“However, it is not enough to rank those cities. It’s also important to control energy, especially coal consumption. Some cities didn’t clarify how much they are going to reduce their coal consumption. The lack of a number makes us worried that there won’t be any dramatic change in terms of air quality.”

China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gao Li also said: “We must make air quality control an ecological red line for economic management and social development.”

The aforementioned CNN article reports that in September this year, the central Chinese government planned on stopping the approval of coal-fired power plants in more heavily polluted industrial areas. It also announced a national air control plan to lower the concentration of harmful particles in the air by at least 10 per cent between 2012 and 2017. In heavily polluted areas, including the northern Chinese cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, the target is to cut particles by 25 per cent. In southern China, along the Pearl River Delta, the goal is 15 per cent.

As of now, no one policy really stands out in terms of success and the government is still searching for an anti-pollution policy that yields results. Hence prompting the government, earlier this month, to offer financial rewards in six regions, including Beijing provided they managed to reduce pollution. According to the South China Post as much as 5 billion RMB would be set aside. From Reuters:

“The Finance Ministry said the regions eligible for the rewards were Beijing and its neighboring city of Tianjin, the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong, as well as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The awards would be made at the end of the year and would be determined by pollution reduction targets, investment in tackling the problem and falls in PM 2.5 particles, which are especially bad for health, the ministry said on its website.

The provinces of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia are among China’s top coal-producing provinces and have been a major source of air pollution.”

An emergency response program for Beijing city was also passed earlier this month on October 16. According to CNN:

“The city’s Heavy Air Pollution Contingency Plan stipulates that when there is “serious pollution for three consecutive days,” a warning system comprising of blue, yellow, orange and red — the most serious — alerts will be activated. Kindergartens, primary and middle schools will then have to stop classes, while 80% of government-owned cars must be taken off the roads. Private cars will only be allowed to enter the city on alternate days according to ballot system of the numbers on their registration plates.

All freight vehicles and those transporting material for construction sites will be barred from the roads when the red alert is issued, while more watering carts and sprinkler trucks will take to the roads, the state-run China Daily reported.

Factories in the city emitting pollutants will be required to cut their emissions or shut down completely when the orange warning signal is hoisted, while construction sites must halt excavation and demolition operations. Other measures include a ban on barbeques and fireworks on heavily polluted days.”

China is implementing a whole raft of new of policies. The government must now be feeling the pressure of the smog doomsday and is getting antsy, which may explain why the Beijing government has agreed to try a vacuum cleaner to suck the smog out of the air.

Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde has the idea of cleaning up polluted air by vacuuming it. Sucking the bad air away would create columns of clean air. This smog-sucking machine will be tested in a Beijing park. The vacuum made up of copper wires will be buried under the ground in the park. The generated electromagnetic field will drag airborne pollution particles to the ground, where they can be easily cleaned. But this cool invention is a way of drawing attention to the problem, rather than a being the solution to Beijing’s serious air pollution problem.

All too often it seems that important issues are only taken seriously and addressed when there is a crisis? And at the same time those with the brains only really step up on solving problems  when a miracle is needed to make things better. Let’s hope it is not too late…


Image courtesy of Urban Times.