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RED ALERT: Beijing’s Smog Emergency

At 7 AM on December 7th an industrious city over 20 million people, was brought to a grinding halt. For the first time ever, China’s capitol city, Beijing, was under “Red Alert” due to dangerously high levels of air pollution. The people had a mere 13 hours to prepare for this massive shutdown, and it is lasted for a full 72 hours, until it was lifted on Thursday morning.

The pollution situation in China is an ugly one. Beijing in particular has both natural and industrial factors working to submerge the city in a perpetual haze. Throughout the winter a high-pressure system sits over china and forces pollution particles closer to the ground. Large mountains to the North and West of Beijing trap the smog that blows up from the hundreds of other industrial cities to the South and East, like a bowl. The effects are outrageous. A thick cloud of heavy smog sits over top of the city persistently, and only two things ever clear it away: winds from the North West, or rain.

smogOf course, the severity of this problem cannot be attributed to environmental factors alone. China pollutes. No matter what graph one looks at, China is among the top carbon emitters in the world. Their industry sector is monumental, and is responsible for most of the pollution that exists in places like Beijing. Yet instead of stopping factory activity in and around Beijing to effectively cut the smog, the government encouraged schools to close, drew construction to a standstill, banished half of the of 4 million registered vehicles from the streets, and even embargoed fireworks and barbecues. They stopped everything but their industry sector.

The World Health Organization’s Air Quality Index measures the micrograms of pollution per cubic meter. 0-50 is considered healthy, 51-100 is moderate. Anything above 200 is very unhealthy and is above recommended maximum exposure levels. The AQI in Beijing this week stayed above 300 until Wednesday. The week of November 30th, the AQI skyrocketed to somewhere between 500 and 600. Quite literally, off the charts.

The health effects of persistently living in a cloud of industrial smog are as one would imagine: horrific. Not only are people constantly inhaling particles of dust, heavy metals and coal, but local water systems, crops, and livestock also absorb this particulate matter. Contamination like this, affects every level of life. A new study suggests that intense pollution like this can contribute to extreme weather patterns and events.

So naturally, the people of China have become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protests against pollution. Since 2012 Chinese environmental protests have become increasingly high-profile, challenging the hazy status quo. The severity of the situation has even inspired creativity amongst the people: to call attention to the smog crisis, Chinese artist, Kong Ning dawned a bright costume made of hundreds of horns. Another artist, by the name Brother Nut, wandered the streets of Beijing for 100 days holding a vacuum in the air like a torch. The amount of pollution collected from this experiment was enough to make a solid brick. Between the protests and powerful artistic illustrations of the issue, the Chinese government has been prodded into reluctant action.

smogFor high-profile events in Beijing, the government does anything they can to ensure the highest level of air quality achievable. The most recent example of this is when China actually did shut down their industry sector for a number of days, to accommodate their massive military parade in 2014.  For this occasion, no chances were taken: almost all carbon-emitting activities were cut, and the skies cleared significantly and quickly. Such was the case with the Red Alert–Beijing’s smog decreased by Thursday to a healthy AQI of 15 with the help of some North Westerly winds. Blue skies were even visible – but how long will they last?

The decision to enact the Red Alert for smog wasn’t spur of the moment – as with anything done by the government of China, this move was calculated and premeditated. The Red Alert coincided with the Paris climate change talks, which may seem mundane, but it could signal the beginning of a new era:

Until now, China has stubbornly refused to participate in sustainable development. They claim that pollution is just part of a nation’s development process, and that they are still catching up to the rest of the developed world. While this is not the first time China has banned carbon emitting activities, this is the first time China has publicly labeled the shutdown as a pollution emergency. Which is hopeful. Perhaps this Red Alert is China’s way of letting the world know: We recognize this as a problem, and now were taking steps to improve. If China starts investing in sustainable development, you can bet that the U.S. will match them in the spirit of competition – and that would be good for the world. Imagine the space race, but for sustainable development…

Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. In all likelihood, China will continue to pump the atmosphere with just as many GHG’s as they’ve been doing for decades and once in a while they’ll issue one of these Red Alert’s for good publicity. Only time will tell for certain, but even small steps towards environmental improvement are meaningful steps.


Will Brendza
Will Brendza is a freelance journalist and aimless adventurer based out of the Rocky Mountains, a fearless student of science and a keen outdoorsman. After having witnessed firsthand the environmental abominations taking place both abroad and at home in the US, he resolved to spread the knowledge and drive for global sustainability. When he isn't writing or reading a good book, he can usually be found exploring foreign countries, savoring craft breweries or somewhere deep within the wilderness of Colorado."

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