It’s #TheMostSeriousSmog of the year when China boosts economy with coal

Tiananmen Square, Bejing: Nov. 2015. Smog descends on Northern China nearly every winter as coal output increases to heat homes. (Credit: LWYang / Flickr)

China’s dreaming of a clear Christmas, as the year’s worst smog has smothered 460 million people in its northern provinces since Friday and choked any talk of achieving pollution targets. Although winds are expected to clear the air by the end of the week, the government faces a fierce public fallout from the “airpocalypse.”

As of Wednesday, 28 cities have issued a “red alert.” Schools are closed, planes are having trouble landing, even- and odd-numbered license plates are alternating days on the road, and tens of thousands of “smog refugees” have reportedly fled to other cities or countries.

“We believe that China’s smog is not unavoidable, but is the result of weaknesses in governance,” Cheng Hai, one of several lawyers suing the governments of Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding Hebei province, told Reuters.

The red alerts “proved that local governments had not conscientiously fulfilled their legal obligations to control air pollution,” another lawyer behind the suit, Li Zhongwei, posted on Chinese social media site Weibo. Other users are venting their fears and frustrations with the hashtag, #TheMostSeriousSmog.

The most severe of China’s four-tier warning system, a “red alert” predicts an average air-quality index (AQI) higher than 200 for at least four days, above 300 for two or more days or higher than 500 for 24 hours. Several stations in Hebei province far exceeded 700 on Monday, according to Greenpeace.

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One of those stations in Shijiazhuang city also measured more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 – toxic airborne particulates – on Monday. According to the World Health Organization, maximum daily exposure to PM2.5 should not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter, but even on a good day, many Chinese cities exceed that.

The industrial Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region – hosting seven of China’s 10 smoggiest cities last year – has been a central focus of the government’s “war on pollution,” since it was declared in 2013. Greenpeace calls the area “the biggest man-made hotspot of air pollution in the world,” because of its huge concentration of coal-powered steel manufacturers and other factories, according to the Washington Post.

This episode, however, spread across six provinces, affecting a population comparable to that of the U.S., Mexico and Canada combined.

China was actually on track to meet its ambitious air pollution targets as recently as this summer. Strict restrictions on coal production helped decrease coal output 10 percent year on year, and the last coal-fired power plants are scheduled to close in March 2017.

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But in September, the government relaxed those restrictions in accordance with a massive stimulus plan to boost the slowing economy. Property construction surged, as did the price of steel – as did production. When the slow winds of winter settled in, the hazardous particulates did, too.

Some people are speculating whether green initiatives – like wind farms, man-made forests and natural gas – aggravated the smog by reducing wind speeds or concentrating pollutants near the ground. But according to researchers, those initiatives contributed a negligible effect, if any.

Instead, most researchers agree that the increased levels of coal-burning to keep up with production and warm homes are the main factor, along with vehicle emissions.

“The scale of the red alert measures show that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously,” climate and energy campaigner Dong Liansai told Greenpeace. “However, the ongoing ‘airpocalypse’ is further evidence that China must implement far stricter limitations on coal consumption and accelerate the restructuring of the economy away from the heavily polluting sectors.”

Around 6.5 million people die prematurely from air pollution globally every year. Without immediate change, those numbers will continue to rise.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.