Beijing's skies begin to clear but toxic smog levels remain

Beijing's skies have begun to clear on Dec 2, bringing a hint of blue for the first time in days.
Beijing's skies have begun to clear on Dec 2, bringing a hint of blue for the first time in days.ST PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Beijing's skies began to clear on Wednesday (Dec 2), bringing a hint of blue for the first time in days even as toxic clouds of smog that had cast the metropolis in darkness continued to linger over cities north of the Chinese capital. 

Concentrations of PM2.5 - the pollutants that pose the greatest risk to human health - reached as high as 269 micrograms per cubic metre in Tianjin city and 202 in Hengshui in Hebei province as of 9am, data from the China National Environment Monitoring Centre showed.

The World Health Organisation recommends average exposure over a 24-hour period at no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

Levels of PM2.5 in Beijing, which hit 666 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday, weakened to 8 micrograms per cubic metre at 9am near Tiananmen Square on Wednesday, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre said on its website.

Smog has enveloped several areas of China, including parts of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, since the night of Nov 26. Beijing on Sunday raised its air pollution alert for the first time in more than a year to orange, the second-highest level in its four-tier system.

City leaders also asked some factories to suspend or limit production and for construction sites to stop transporting materials and waste.

The extensive smog has sparked renewed debate over air pollution. Smog was the fourth-most real-time keyword search on the microblogging site Sina Weibo at one point on Tuesday.


Such focus has been a catalyst in transforming China into a force in a bid to reach a global climate agreement in Paris. President Xi Jinping was in the French capital on Monday for United Nations-led talks on the deal to fight climate change.

The air pollution threat "sparked by not-infrequent smog in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai has contributed to spurring sales of indoor air purifiers", Stockholm-based Blueair AB, said in an e-mailed response to questions. 

The Swedish company said it has consistently grown its market presence in China since it started operations in the Asian country about a decade ago.

The burning of raw coal and industrial emissions are the major sources of pollution in northern parts of China, while emissions from automobiles are the main contributor to Beijing's smog, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a website statement on Tuesday.

Average PM2.5 concentrations in China's major regions during peak heating times are about 20 per cent higher than annual average levels, especially in the north, the ministry said on Oct 29.


Air pollution kills an average of 4,000 people a day in China, according to a study earlier this year by Berkeley Earth, an independent research group funded largely by educational grants, which cited coal-burning as the likely principal cause.

The world's biggest carbon emitter has adopted air quality standards, introduced monitoring stations and cleaner standards for transportation fuel while shutting some coal plants and moving factories out of cities.

China was the biggest renewables market in the world with 433 gigawatts of generating capacity at the end of 2014, more than double the second place US, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.

Solar installations have gone from about 300 megawatts in 2009 at the time of the last major climate talks in Copenhagen to almost 33 gigawatts at the end of 2014. China accounts for almost one of every three wind turbines in the world at the moment.


Coal use still amounted to about 64 per cent of the nation's total energy consumption in 2014, according to data from the National Energy Administration.

As part of its climate commitments, China has vowed to see carbon emissions peak by about 2030.

"There are still doubts about its fossil fuel phase-out scenario," GlobalData, a London-based research company, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The aim of attaining peak emissions by or before 2030 is also questionable, given the number of newly built coal-fired power plants in China in the past 15 years."