Airpocalypse hits Beijing- and breaks devastating new record

by Guest Blogger

October 10, 2014

A girl and her mother wear respirator masks and hold a banner reading No PM2.5. Beijing experienced 2,589 deaths and a loss of US$328 million in 2012 because of PM2.5 pollution. Cities in Chinas Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region suffered over 100 hazy days a year with PM2.5 concentration two to four times above World Health Organization guidelines. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, PM2.5, are called "fine" particles and can lodge deeply into the lungs.

© Greenpeace / Wu Di

Usually it’s only locals that have to suffer through Beijing’s notorious air pollution. But as records in air quality are smashed, celebrities and sport stars in town this week are forced to power through as well. Mariah Carey, top cyclists and football star Lionel Messi will get a taste today of Airpocalypse episodes of extreme air pollution.

For the first time this year, air quality reached “hazardous levels”, or 215 times “safe” levels, for over 50 hours. This is the longest Beijingers have been forced to breathe this sort of air this year.

Parents, children, students and even visiting football star,Lionel Messi who is in Beijing for a football match this year, have been going about their daily business in air so noxious and thick with pollutants that visibility is down to 500 metres.

Satellite images show that a thick wave of pollution has come from areas south to Beijing, including the southern part of Hebei Province where iron and steel mills and other heavy industries are concentrated. It’s no surprise that the haze is man made, but weather conditions are exacerbating the problem.

Satellite image showing the haze direction in and around Beijing in northeast China.  NASA

NASA satellite image showing the haze direction in and around Beijing in northeast China

The World Health Organization set a limit for PM2.5 of 25 micrograms per cubic meter within a 24-hour period of time. In the last 50 hours, it’s been above 250 micrograms per cubic meter.

Blue skies now!

In the early hours of this morning, the Greenpeace “Haze Squad” projected a plea onto one of the city’s most iconic building the Drum Tower.Greenpeace activists project the message "Blue Sky Now!" onto a facade of the Drum Tower, an iconic historical building in Central Beijing. 10/10/2014  Yang Di / Greenpeace

And on October 8, the Greenpeace Haze Squad took to the streets with a portable PM2.5 detector, visiting two of Beijing’s most well known hospitals and alerting people to the air readings. In one such area, we detected PM2.5 16 times above WHO recommended standards, and yet many pregnant women, infants, and patients with respiratory conditions were not even wearing masks.

Beijing last year initiated an emergency plan for pollution control measures if air pollution hits severe levels on consecutive days. But so far,the authorities failed to put the city on red alert. The capital raised its pollution alert from yellow to orange, which is the second-highest level, but not enough to advise people stay inside and shut down the polluters.

So, this morning, children walked to school through the grey streets, old people practiced tai chi out in public spaces as if it were any other day and Messi trained on the local football pitch… as if it were any other day.

Initiating the Red alert of emergency plan is a quite a big deal for the Beijing government. It would take half of Beijing’s cars off the road, exempt pupils and high school students from attending school, and allow flexible working hours for employees.

If our little detector, based on a quick tour of the city can reveal such devastating results, than surely the government, with all its sophisticated equipment, can better forecast these conditions.

The precision of forecasting has to be improved, and the Beijing Municipal Government must make good use of the emergency plan despite the high operational costs.

Greenpeace has long demonstrated the devastating effects of an economy fueled by dirty coal. And having recently announced a War on Pollution, the government does too. It’s now time to ween ourselves from coal faster and reach new milestones in renewable energy.

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