The New Year has begun on a gloomy note in China. Pollution has reached alarming levels in several Chinese cities, particularly Beijing. With the biggest Chinese festival—the Chinese New Year—less than a month way, the gloom and smog in a bitterly cold China is hardly putting cheer in people’s minds.
Pollution is not new to China. One of the biggest prices it has paid for its rapid industrialisation is to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon. Broad-based fuel-intensive rampant horizontal industrialisation has led to sharp increase in air and water pollution. Tackling pollution and reducing carbon emissions have been major policy priorities for China for quite some time now. The importance of these objectives have been repeatedly emphasised in various high-level forums and policy documents. But the results are yet to show.
Air pollution in Beijing has become so high that daily lives and chores have been badly affected. Apart from heavy smog disrupting road and air traffic by low visibility, people have been warned to spend as little time outdoor as possible. Outdoor activities have also been sharply limited for schools. Locals have been urged to travel more by public transport for reducing use of private cars. NGOs like the Green Beagle, Greenpeace and the Future Green Youth Leadership Council are busy distributing face masks to those who cannot avoid being outdoors for long periods—street workers, traffic wardens, security guards, etc.
How serious is the problem? An air quality index (AQI) above 300 signals severe pollution. Several cities in China are sporting AQIs around 500 or more. These include Baoding, Beijing, Tianjin, Handan, Tanshan, Nantong, Wuxi and Zhengzhou. Cities with 300 plus AQI include Chengdu, Dalian, Harbin, Hefei, Jinan, Qingdao and Xi’an.
Beijing has practically degenerated into a polluting pot with the AQI rising to more than 700 at certain points in time over the last week. Famous city landmarks such as the Temple of Heaven and busy thoroughfares like the Qianmen Dongdajie are setting new highs in the AQI. While sales of face masks have soared across the city, hospitals are experiencing unusually high traffic of patients suffering from several illnesses.