BEIJING (USA TODAY) - The smog smothering China's capital in January hasprovoked public activism ranging from high school students pressing cityofficials on emergency measures, to a real estate mogul holding anonline poll for a clean air act.
The filthy, dangerous andrecord-breaking start to air quality in 2013 continued Thursday inBeijing where the air was described as "very unhealthy," according tothe U.S. Embassy, which monitors air quality for employees and isconsidered a reliable source for such information.
Some citizenssuggest banning the fireworks for this weekend's Chinese New Yearcelebrations, when Beijing and other cities resemble war zones withdeafening firecrackers and dense smoke.
But both governmentofficials and environmentalists warn that the answer to China'spollution problems will require more long-term solutions before thecountry enjoys blue skies permanently.
The delay in revisingChina's existing air pollution law, from 2000, shows the "low priorityto environmental issues," said Zhou Rong, East Asia climate and energycampaigner at Greenpeace in Beijing. But she said she is encouraged that"the public are definitely more involved than before."
For mostof January, the smog level has been multiple times over the WorldHealth Organization's recommended upper limit of exposure to PM2.5pollution, 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.
Constantcoughing in class prompted four students at Beijing No. 4 High Schoolto take action by compiling a 7,000-character submission to cityauthorities to amend air quality regulations and take specific emergencymeasures. The request was signed by 218 students.
The smog has packed hospitals with young and old sufferingrespiratory and heart problems. High levels of PM2.5 air pollutioncaused 8,572 premature deaths last year in four major Chinese citiesincluding Beijing, according to a joint study by environmental groupGreenpeace and Peking University's School of Public Health.
Salesof expensive air filters have boomed, as well as face masks, but manypeople still disregard the dangers, including those working outside allday.
"I don't wear a mask as I grew up here, I'm used to thepollution, but I do miss the blue skies when I was a kid," said ZhaoWei, 25, a city postal clerk, whose office has no air filters.
Celebrity blogger and real estate baron Pan Shiyi asked his 14million followers on one of China's Twitter equivalents if theysupported his plan to propose a clean air act to the city legislature.The online poll he started Tuesday showed almost 99% of more than 46,000respondents welcomed the idea.
Last winter, public momentumhelped push the government to release PM2.5 data. This year, the focusis on solutions, as shown by a raging debate on the low quality ofChinese fuel, said Greenpeace's Zhou.
People focus onvehicle emissions from gridlocked streets, "as 10 years ago Chinesecities didn't have cars," yet the biggest contributor to China's airpollution remains coal, Zhou said.
"We are still growing theeconomy, demanding more energy and burning more coal," which accountsfor two-thirds of China's energy supply, she said. "China is beginningto change, but needs time to make the shift," and sharply increasedpenalties for polluters.
Resolving the smog problemrequires a "long-term process. But we must act," said China's nextpremier, Li Keqiang, who is set to take office in March.
The U.S.experience shows how long it takes to reduce emissions from cars, soChina should instead aim at reducing then eliminating coal consumptionin its large cities, said Yang Fuqiang, a former government researcher,now senior adviser on climate, energy and environment at the NaturalResources Defense Council.
"It is a long-term fight," but increased use of natural gasand renewable energy, plus clean coal technology and increased energyefficiency, can produce rapid improvements in air quality, Yang said."We cannot say GDP comes first. We can make a shorter schedule to thetime 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.
"WhenI was 20 years old, I could see the Western Hills from Deshengmen," anold city wall gate in Beijing, said composer Gao Xiaosong. "When I was30, I could see Xizhimen (a closer landmark) from Deshengmen, when I was40, standing at Deshengmen, I could hardly see the Deshengmen!"
Contributing: Sunny Yang