Beijing pollution alert eased as smog still sticks around

A man wears a mask on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on Dec 22, 2015.
A man wears a mask on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on Dec 22, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – A miasma of hazardous haze blanketed Beijing and the rest of northern China for the fifth day Wednesday (Dec 23), while Beijing lifted its highest pollution warning on expectation the smog will ease.

The smog continued to rise into Wednesday, though a new forecast said it would start to improve later in the day. By 10am local time, the concentration of PM2.5 – the tiniest particles that pose the greatest health risks – was 327 micrograms per cubic metre at Tiananmen Square.

The overall Air Quality Index (AQI) was 404, indicating “severe” pollution.

The cancelling of the red alert meant traffic restrictions were lifted and schools reopened despite the lingering smog.

That highlighted the challenge government officials face in both forecasting the pollution – the red alert is imposed when the air quality index is forecast to rise above 200 for three days –  and cleaning it up without disrupting the lives of Beijing’s 20 million residents too severely.

The red alert will be lifted when the daily AQI index drops below the “heavy” pollution level, said Dong Liansai, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. 

The alert “is different from what the public feels every hour and this might need to be improved.” 

Air quality will improve from north to south between the evening of Dec 23 and Dec 25, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a statement on Monday (Dec  21).

Other cities surrounding Beijing in northern China issued red alerts on Tuesday (Dec 22) as the capital lifted its own warning. Tianjin’s red alert, which goes into effect when the AQI rises above 500, will stay in effect until 6am Dec 24. Other cities including Baoding, Handan and Xingtai were also under a red alert.

“The warning system of pollution is just a temporary way to reduce smog,” said Dong. The nation should curb coal use, the biggest cause of smog, to tackle the issue in the long run, he said.

Shanghai also warned residents to stay indoors because of the smog on Wednesday (Dec 23). The air in China’s financial centre was described as “heavily polluted,” the second-worst on a 6-grade scale, as of 10am, the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Centre said on its website.