Magazine / October 2013

It’s time to talk solutions: less coal, cleaner air

Image one of three comparison images showing a smog haze build up over three days in Central Beijing.

Image one of three comparison images showing a smog haze build up over three days in Central Beijing.

© Greenpeace / Wang Yi Kun

In January of 2013, a historic level of pollution – 1,000 microgram/m3 - was recorded in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area. It was 100 times the World Health Organization's recommended standard. 

BEIJING HEALTH IMPACTS Read the damning air pollution report

Locals were witnessing off the charts levels of pollution, and understandably their concern skyrocketed alongside it. During this time NGO volunteers were out on the streets handing out health kits and official alerts were sent to residents warning them to stay indoors and restrict sports activities. 

Air pollutionIn my part of Beijing I couldn’t even see buildings 50 meters away and though I wore a respiratory mask, I still worried about my health. There were news reports of people with breathing and heart problems crowding hospitals. And it was during these moments that I looked out of my window and seeing the late morning looking as dark as dawn, asked myself, should I leave for a better place?

A lot of foreigners had begun to leave Beijing, or even China for good. But for ordinary Chinese people, air pollution had became one of the big question marks for the future of China, and thus a massive challenge for the leaders of the nation.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area of China is significant for both its size and political clout. And the fact that it was here this pollution disaster unfolded created unpredicted effects within the halls of government. Many different voices spoke out and talked publicly of the true cause of air pollution. This meant Greenpeace was not the only one pointing a finger at coal, but also from high-level government officials. During the NPC & CPPCC sessions, seven CPCC members called for eastern regional coal consumption control, in order to tackle air pollution. If the central leaders were gambling on luck or easy solutions, now the severity of air pollution and public awareness had pushed them into a corner.

In April we began to hear of an air pollution control plan in discussion between central and local governments, with regional cooperation and coal control included. 

Coal plant

A herder with his sheep near Yunfeng coal power plant at the border between Shanxi and Inner Mongolia. Shanxi Province is the country's great coal producer with about a third of the nation's coal reserves. © Greenpeace / Simon Lim