With toxic haze forecast to return to Beijing on Saturday, many city residents are asking how a deterioration in air quality can be reversed and what city officials can do to avoid the kind of “red alert” that curtailed daily life in the nation’s capital this week.
While government statements attribute the smog in large part to car pollution, the explanation isn’t satisfying some people in Beijing.
“Overseas countries also have lots of cars, so why don’t they have such smog?” Dong Yucun, a 55-year-old insurance saleswoman, asked on Thursday during an interview in Beijing’s Financial Street district as a cold wind provided temporary relief from the smog.
Small coal-burning furnaces scattered through northern China in addition to vehicle emissions are the main culprits feeding the heavy pollution that shrouds Beijing, said Jiang Kejun, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission.
Weather can exacerbate the problem. An absence of wind traps pollutants, while the drop in temperatures boosts coal use for home heating. Coal is still widely used for heat, especially in poorer regions, even though the government is trying to impose limits.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection on its website blamed the weather this time. Slower wind speeds combined with higher humidity made conditions worse, the ministry said.
Beijing’s air quality index is forecast to return to "very unhealthy" levels on Saturday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which provides air quality readings through its website.
The lingering smog has renewed public focus on air pollution, the price for three decades of breakneck economic growth that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. At climate talks in Paris, China’s negotiators have outlined a plan that would see emissions peak by about 2030, while renewables and nuclear would rise to supply a fifth of electricity.
“China is in industrialization and organization process,” Xie Zhenhua, the head of China’s delegation in Paris, told reporters on Dec. 8. “It is normal that industrial countries will be suffering from pollution problems, like London, like Los Angeles in the past -- they all had similar problems. That is why we are stressing the importance of low-carbon development.”
Beijing issued its first-ever red alert over air pollution this week. The highest on a four-tier warning scale introduced in 2013, the alert closed schools and some factories as well as restricting vehicle traffic.
"Beijing’s triggering of this red alert is a welcome development," Greenpeace East Asia said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday. "Officials appear less coy about sounding the alarm bells in the anticipation of emergencies."
Last week, the government repeated plans to upgrade coal power plants in the next five years. On Wednesday, it confirmed incentives to some coal plants that cap emissions under nationally-set thresholds. The intention is to crack down on the kinds of pollutants and heavy smog that had blanketed northern parts of the country.
Clean energy push
The central government will strengthen its effort to tackle the issue each time pollution worsens, though there’s currently no mechanism to address the long-term effects of the problem, said Wang Tao, a resident scholar in the energy and climate program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
The government has said it will use more clean energy, eliminate outdated production capacity or reduce reliance on coal as part of its efforts to reduce air pollution.
When economic development concerns are factored in, “it’s hard to shut down necessary production to meet air quality targets," said Zach Friedman, a Beijing-based adviser to the Institute for Industrial Productivity, a non-profit organization covering industrial energy efficiency and climate change.
"They’re trying as much as they can politically," he said. “Structural adjustments can’t happen in two or three years, especially when you’re dealing with employment and capital issues of large facilities."
China has embarked on a makeover designed to shift its $10 trillion-plus economy away from a reliance on big, energy-consuming heavy industries and toward services and consumer spending. Service industries are starting to account for a greater percentage of China’s economic output, rising 2.3 percentage points in the third quarter compared with the year earlier, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.
Energy system reform
Burning straw and the production of petrochemicals are other potent sources of the PM2.5 pollutants the government needs to rein in, said Jiang from ERI. Coal accounts for two thirds of China’s energy supply, despite efforts to rein it in.
"The only guaranteed and immediate short-term solution to this crisis would be a gust of northern or western wind," said Greenpeace East Asia. "And the only permanent long-time solution to this issue is the reform of China’s coal-dominated energy system."