Author: Lucy Hornby
Posted on Financial Times, December 4th, 2016
Beijing’s infamous smog spiked on Sunday despite draconian measures in surrounding cities to reduce persistent pollution during the winter in northern China.
The thick layer of haze has become a political liability for the ruling Communist party and has driven China’s participation in the Paris climate accord to limit emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases.
An air monitor index released by the US embassy in Beijing breached 600 late Saturday evening, a level referred to colloquially as “crazy bad” because index designers originally thought the city’s pollution would never reach beyond 500. The index has breached that level on multiple winters since the term first debuted in 2010, forcing the embassy to adopt to a more sobersided “hazardous”.
The British School of Beijing cancelled a Christmas fair, even though it was scheduled to be held indoors. Air pollution has become such an obsession for foreigners living in Beijing that international schools compete on the quality of their indoor air.
The latest episode comes despite desperate measures. Beijing’s new mayor Cai Qi recently relaxed the city’s 2020 target for improved air quality, after his predecessor joked that his head was on the line if he failed to deliver his 2017 targets. Those 2017 targets are unlikely to be met.
“The main reason was transfer of pollution from the surrounding provinces, where steel and other heavy industry clusters have seen a resurgence in activity due to retrograde stimulus policies,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, who tracks Chinese air pollution for Greenpeace.
Surrounding cities in Hebei, the industrial province that surrounds the city, are flailing for a response. Shijiazhuang, the Hebei capital that holds the dubious honour of “most polluted city” on the north China plain this year, last month ordered all steel and cement plants to shut and limited operations at other plants. At least three publicly listed pharmaceutical factories announced they would temporarily shut.
Baoding, the industrial centre crowned smoggiest city in 2015, has ordered all cars to only drive on alternate days, an order that infuriated citizens.
The pollution over the past few weeks has reopened the question of whether improvements seen earlier in the year were due to economic factors, or the top-down diktats from Beijing.
The sudden surge in pollution since September came after an unusually clear spring and summer for Beijingers. Steel mills in nearby Tangshan, the heart of the Chinese steel industry, shut this spring to ensure clear air for a horticultural show. The result was steel mills in the Yangtze Valley raised production amid a corresponding increase in haze in Shanghai.
A sharp rise in coal prices starting in August and renewed economic activity has brought many plants back online that had been temporarily shuttered.
Meanwhile an unusually wet autumn and a low pressure weather systems over the eastern seas have pushed the murk from steel plants in the south back up into the North China plain.