By Te-Ping Chen at Wall Street Journal
Beijing’s residents have long wondered: Just how bad do the capital’s skies have to get before the government issues an emergency red alert?
The serially ‘airpocalypse’-stricken city has in the past resisted issuing such an alert, which requires that authorities implement a series of smog-combating measures. Among other steps, under a red alert half of the city’s cars are ordered off the streets, the government recommends that schools be shuttered and outdoor construction must come to a halt. Such alerts are — in theory at least — to be issued when authorities forecast an air-quality index of above 300 for at least three consecutive days.
China’s air-quality index has a maximum reading of 500, or what the government calls “severely polluted.”
On Monday, Beijing issued a red alert for the first time. The alert goes into effect Tuesday morning, with its environmental protection bureau saying that bad air was expected to last until Thursday, Dec. 10.
According to an analysis released earlier this year, air pollution could prematurely kill more than 250,000 Chinese residents in major cities. (Want to test your own knowledge of other Chinese air pollution stats? Take the CRT quiz here.)
Greenpeace campaigner Dong Liansai said that greater scrutiny from authorities, as well as public pressure, had likely helped spur Monday’s decision.
“The cost of issuing a red alert is really high for the city, so officials weren’t willing to do it so easily,” Mr. Dong said. “But everyone has been talking about the issue lately and wondering why Beijing hasn’t issued it before, even during the really bad spells of smog.”
Last week, high concentrations of smog in Beijing at times made it seem like an eerie, artificial dusk had descended on the nation’s capital, with pollution across the city breaching the government’s official air quality index. Photos of the unnatural pall that swallowed up buildings across town went viral on social media, with even normally more restrained state media outlets such as national broadcaster China Central Television giving wide coverage to the spectacle.
While today marks a first for Beijing, other cities have previously raised a red alert in an effort to combat smog. They include the northeastern city of Shenyang, which last month was struck with pollution that included levels of PM2.5 — fine particulate matter particularly hazardous to human health – exceeding 1,200 micrograms per cubic meter.
The World Health Organization sets a safe level of PM2.5 exposure at 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period.
As of 7:30 p.m. Monday in Beijing, according to data collected by the U.S. Embassy, air pollution was hovering around 274 on the air quality index, or “very unhealthy.”
Though the government recommends that residents seek refuge indoors, China Real Time suggests that you avoid restaurants in Beijing that are more indulgent in their enforcement of the capital’s indoor smoking ban, where hazardous air levels can easily match — or exceed — those even of the polluted outdoors.