In recent weeks, the northeastern part of China has been smothered in smog so thick and so heavily loaded with microparticles that a performance artist has managed to make a solid brick out of it. Beijing is the centerpiece of this blanket of semi-permanent pollution, and today, much of the city has been shut down on government orders after the Chinese capital’s smog problem reached unprecedentedly dangerous levels, as reported by BBC News.
A “red alert” has been issued, meaning that schools and businesses are required to close, and construction work is to halt. This alert, the highest possible warning level, was issued late on Monday night and will persist until Thursday lunchtime, when an incoming cold front is expected to clear the smog. But although smog levels have been higher before, this is the first time such an alert has been raised – suggesting China is taking the quality of its air more seriously.
The Air Quality Index (AQI), which looks at the concentration of poisonous particles in the air, consists of ratings of “good,” “moderate,” “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” and “hazardous,” the worst possible rating. According to the U.S. embassy in the capital, it peaked on Monday at 291 micrograms per cubic meter – more than 10 times the 24-hour mean for particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that the World Health Organization (WHO) deems to be acceptable.
This would earn it an “very unhealthy,” almost “hazardous” rating. In fact, the air there currently has such high concentrations of these poisonous particles that a completely healthy member of the public could get sick from just being outside in the open. Between 2008 and now, the daily average AQI in the city was deemed “unhealthy” 49 percent of the time, and “hazardous” 4 percent of the time.
Although “smog” originally came from the words “smoke” and “fog,” the type of pollution currently seen in Beijing is far more complex and dangerous – it’s a dense cloud of toxic, particulate matter. Nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide from cars, the nearby burning of vast amounts of coal for industry and heating, and metallic, ceramic dust compounds from nearby construction all contribute towards the suffocating smog.
Image credit: Beijing on November 26, 2015 (left), compared to December 1, 2015 (right). Jason Kan
This level of smog is hardly surprising, as China is by far the world’s worst polluter and emitter of greenhouse gases. Last week, the dangerous particulate concentration reached up to 400 micrograms per cubic meter – 40 times the WHO limit – but no alert was issued. Jason Kan, a British expat currently working in Beijing, told IFLScience that the smog last week was so bad that “you couldn’t see more than 50 meters [160 feet] ahead of you. There is effectively no sky to see.”
Frustratingly, there is a clear solution to this problem. For the 70th anniversary of China's victory in the Second World War, traffic was banned for several days from the city center. On an average day, Beijing rates 160 on the AQI. On the day of the parade, the AQI dropped to just 17, and a blue sky could be seen.
Despite China’s ignominious pollution record, a recent report by the International Energy Agency declared that over a quarter of the world will run on renewable energy sources by 2020 – and this effort is to some extent being led by China. The country seems to be changing its environmental policy, and air quality is a key factor in its efforts to be part of a binding, effective deal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.