BEIJING – Authorities in the Chinese capital issued a “red alert” for air pollution on Friday morning, saying it was enacting for the second time the highest-level emergency pollution plan in advance of a prolonged spell of smog that is predicted to smother Beijing and elsewhere in northern China this weekend.
The crisis measures were expected to start Saturday and last for four days.
Beijing first issued a code red on air pollution last week. The measures further raised awareness of toxic air in this city of 22 million and underscored for the rest of the world the dismal state of the environment here. The measures took effect from Dec. 8 to Dec. 10, and they included the shutdown of more than 3,200 schools, the pulling of about half the city’s five million cars off the road each day and the temporary closing of factories and construction sites in the municipal area. The same is expected to be in place during the second crisis period.
But those measures did little to curb the smog the first time. Toxic air cloaked Beijing until strong winds blew the pollutants south. The main source of foul air in the capital comes from coal-burning factories in surrounding provinces, not from activity in the city itself, and cities in those provinces did not take the same drastic emergency measures that Beijing did. Many parts of northern China, including the provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shanxi, regularly have air quality that is worse than that of Beijing.
Pollution of all forms is one of the greatest concerns of Chinese citizens and undermines the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Officials are struggling with how much information on pollution to disclose to citizens. Since 2012, public pressure has resulted in greater official transparency on air quality.
The coming red alert is expected to last longer than the previous one. It is scheduled to start at 7 a.m. on Saturday and end at midnight on Tuesday, according to a phone text message sent to Beijing residents on Friday morning. City officials are supposed to inform the residents 24 hours before emergency measures start. Under the crisis plan first announced in 2013 and revised this year, Beijing is supposed to issue a red alert every time officials predict a spell of smog in which the air quality index exceeds 200 — deemed “very unhealthy” by United States standards — for 72 hours or more.
Weather forecasts show almost zero wind this weekend, which explains the prediction of smog. If the smog does come as predicted, then this would be the third prolonged spell of hazardous air in northern China in the last month, and it would be the fourth time in that period in which the air quality moves into the truly toxic range. (There was a brief surge of smog last weekend, after the second red alert had ended.)
Since the first two days of the coming alert take place over a weekend, the start of the measures is not expected to be as disruptive to daily life as it was in early December. Schools will have ended for the week, and many offices will be closed. A test of the patience of residents will come Monday.
Last time, many residents asked why officials had declared the alert so suddenly — they announced it about 12 hours before the measures began — and left people little time to make plans. Since schools closed but offices did not, many parents had to scramble to find babysitters to watch their children or decided to skip work and stay home.
The mayor of Beijing, Wang Anshun, and environmental officials decided to issue that first red alert after coming under withering criticism just one week earlier when the worst spell of toxic air this year descended on Beijing. That occurred over the last weekend of November, and the air quality index in southern Beijing reached nearly 1,000, off the scale of how the United States Environmental Protection Agency rates air quality. On that scale, 50 is the upper limit of air considered “good.” Years ago, the United States Embassy called air beyond 300 “crazy bad.”
During that late November weekend, frustrated Beijing residents asked why the city had not gone to red alert status when forecasters had already predicted the incoming smog. The spell of poisonous air also took place at the start of the Paris climate change talks, when President Xi Jinping met with world leaders to discuss the evils of fossil fuel use. While covering the start of the talks, global news media organizations published articles, videos and photographs on China’s toxic air, which proved extremely embarrassing for Chinese officials, say some environmental scholars in Beijing. That was one reason Beijing officials began to seriously consider issuing the red alert after never having done so, they say.