A tourist wearing the masks walks on the Tiananmen Square during severe pollution on January 31, 2013 in Beijing, China. Heavy smog that has choked Beijing for the last five days weakened slightly on Thursday due to a light rainfall, although the capital's air remains heavily polluted. The haze choking many Chinese cities covers a total area of 1.43 million square kilometers, the China's Ministry of Environmental Protection said Wednesday. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING (USA TODAY) - The smog smothering China's capital in January has
provoked public activism ranging from high school students pressing city
officials on emergency measures, to a real estate mogul holding an
online poll for a clean air act.
The filthy, dangerous and
record-breaking start to air quality in 2013 continued Thursday in
Beijing where the air was described as "very unhealthy," according to
the U.S. Embassy, which monitors air quality for employees and is
considered a reliable source for such information.
suggest banning the fireworks for this weekend's Chinese New Year
celebrations, when Beijing and other cities resemble war zones with
deafening firecrackers and dense smoke.
But both government
officials and environmentalists warn that the answer to China's
pollution problems will require more long-term solutions before the
country enjoys blue skies permanently.
The delay in revising
China's existing air pollution law, from 2000, shows the "low priority
to environmental issues," said Zhou Rong, East Asia climate and energy
campaigner at Greenpeace in Beijing. But she said she is encouraged that
"the public are definitely more involved than before."
of January, the smog level has been multiple times over the World
Health Organization's recommended upper limit of exposure to PM2.5
pollution, tiny particulate matter that poses the greatest health risks.
With just five smog-free days from Jan. 1 to Jan. 29, this has been Beijing's haziest January since 1954, according to the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece.
coughing in class prompted four students at Beijing No. 4 High School
to take action by compiling a 7,000-character submission to city
authorities to amend air quality regulations and take specific emergency
measures. The request was signed by 218 students.
The smog has packed hospitals with young and old suffering
respiratory and heart problems. High levels of PM2.5 air pollution
caused 8,572 premature deaths last year in four major Chinese cities
including Beijing, according to a joint study by environmental group
Greenpeace and Peking University's School of Public Health.
of expensive air filters have boomed, as well as face masks, but many
people still disregard the dangers, including those working outside all
"I don't wear a mask as I grew up here, I'm used to the
pollution, but I do miss the blue skies when I was a kid," said Zhao
Wei, 25, a city postal clerk, whose office has no air filters.
Celebrity blogger and real estate baron Pan Shiyi asked his 14
million followers on one of China's Twitter equivalents if they
supported his plan to propose a clean air act to the city legislature.
The online poll he started Tuesday showed almost 99% of more than 46,000
respondents welcomed the idea.
Last winter, public momentum
helped push the government to release PM2.5 data. This year, the focus
is on solutions, as shown by a raging debate on the low quality of
Chinese fuel, said Greenpeace's Zhou.
People focus on
vehicle emissions from gridlocked streets, "as 10 years ago Chinese
cities didn't have cars," yet the biggest contributor to China's air
pollution remains coal, Zhou said.
"We are still growing the
economy, demanding more energy and burning more coal," which accounts
for two-thirds of China's energy supply, she said. "China is beginning
to change, but needs time to make the shift," and sharply increased
penalties for polluters.
Resolving the smog problem
requires a "long-term process. But we must act," said China's next
premier, Li Keqiang, who is set to take office in March.
experience shows how long it takes to reduce emissions from cars, so
China should instead aim at reducing then eliminating coal consumption
in its large cities, said Yang Fuqiang, a former government researcher,
now senior adviser on climate, energy and environment at the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
"It is a long-term fight," but increased use of natural gas
and renewable energy, plus clean coal technology and increased energy
efficiency, can produce rapid improvements in air quality, Yang said.
"We cannot say GDP comes first. We can make a shorter schedule to the
time when we can get better air."
Winds expected Thursday night may dissipate the smog and improve visibility, at least temporarily.
Amid mounting frustration and health worries online, there's black humor, too.
I was 20 years old, I could see the Western Hills from Deshengmen," an
old city wall gate in Beijing, said composer Gao Xiaosong. "When I was
30, I could see Xizhimen (a closer landmark) from Deshengmen, when I was
40, standing at Deshengmen, I could hardly see the Deshengmen!"
Contributing: Sunny Yang
Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY