BEIJING has been smothered with smog most of the time since late February. Clear days have been so precious that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Even during the annual Two Sessions – the meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee – in March, the metropolis could not be free of the thick polluted air.
Usually, whenever the capital hosts a major event, China does its best to ensure blue skies, including ordering factories to stop operations.
But it is hard to control Mother Nature.
Unfavourable meteorological conditions, mainly a stable atmosphere with low winds and high humidity, have made the dispersal of pollutants difficult, chief forecaster at the National Meteorological Center, Ma Xuekuan, told China Daily.
He explained that these conditions had persisted for an unusually long period of more than 20 days, compared with just nine days last year, thus trapping the smog in the city.
On April 1, Beijing issued a blue alert, the lowest of the nation’s four-tier alert system, for air pollution.
It was the fourth alert in some 20 days. Another blue alert and two orange alerts for air pollution were issued in March.
When an orange alert is issued, primary and secondary schools are advised to stop outdoor activities while heavily polluting vehicles (such as trucks transporting construction waste, muck, sand and gravel) are banned from the roads.
In China’s warning system, a red alert is the most severe, followed by (in descending order) orange, yellow and blue.
On March 28, a sandstorm blew in from Mongolia, worsening the already very unhealthy situation, pushing the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) to the maximum (and hazardous) level of 500.
Pollution control and haze reduction have been among China’s top priorities, especially in the capital, which is particularly prone to wintertime smog.
Over the years, there have been numerous steps to help Beijing shed the title of “smog city”.
These include tightening law enforcement and relocating factories.
These efforts have paid off and the city’s air quality has significantly improved. Last year, Beijing recorded 226 blue sky days, compared to just 176 in 2013.
Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre revealed that the annual average concentration of hazardous fine particles (PM2.5) was lowered to 58 micrograms per cubic metre, from 90 micrograms recorded five years ago.
Blue sky days is a general term that refers to days with good air quality, that is, when the AQI does not exceed 100.
Air pollution was especially severe during the cold season in Beijing due to the burning of coal for heating.
But this is a thing of the past.
Residents saw frequent blue skies during the cold weather last year, with only five days of severe air pollution recorded from October through December.
“The dramatic improvement in air quality mainly resulted from effective and extra strict controls on emissions and advantageous weather to disperse pollutants,” Li Xiang, director of air quality management at the capital’s Environmental Protection Bureau, told China Daily.
The replacement of coal with clean energy is another major contributor to the change.
In 2017, there was almost no coal consumption in Beijing’s six districts and its southern plain areas.
For the first time, the city made it to the list of 10 best Chinese cities for air quality, ranking ninth in December, which saw it enjoying 65% of blue sky days.
The other cities included Xiamen (in Fujian province), Haikou (Hainan province), Lhasa (Tibet autonomous region) and Zhangjiakou (Hebei province).
China is serious about wanting to win the battle against pollution.
Following two rounds of environmental inspection operations, China has punished nearly 2,200 officials, including those with vice-ministerial posts or above, for failing to fulfil environmental protection duties.
Ecological Environment Minister Li Ganjie said such operations had played an effective role in solving environmental problems at people’s doorsteps.
The officials held accountable were publicly named, admonished, ordered to apologise, given party disciplinary or administrative punishment, or transferred to judicial authorities, he added at a press conference.
The operations were part of China’s campaign to fight pollution and environmental degradation as decades of growth have left the country with smog, polluted water and contaminated soil.
Beijing has entered spring with high temperatures that gradually shot up to over 20°C, but a cold wave last week has thrown the city back to the snowy season.
The snow that came last Wednesday also brought the AQI down to a slightly unhealthy level.
Emissions from coal-burning vehicles and industries are major contributors to air pollution in Beijing.
Now that the coal-burning issue has been resolved, the city government’s next step is to take high-emission vehicles off the roads.
Currently, these vehicles are forbidden within the Sixth Ring Road.
We in Beijing are looking forward to blue skies and a city with fresh clean air.
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