The above is a picture of me coming out of the Beijing subway on December 1, 2015 on my way to a checkup with my doctor. Obviously a lot of contradictions there.
Beijing actually had five days of the heaviest smog since it began recording its pollution levels.
And then on Wednesday, December 2, we had skies that were bluer than the brightest skies over Montana. How? Wind. It came in with a fury out of Mongolia and gave Beijingers the gift of clean air.
The culprit? PM 2.5, the world’s primary air pollutant. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that anything above 25 micrograms per cubic meter is unhealthy. On December 1, some neighborhoods experienced levels well above 500, prompting the government to allow some students to study from home and flooding the city’s hospitals with concerned parents and their children.
What is the cause? Sixty percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal. And according to an energy scientist friend of mine it’s more like energy-rich dirt than coal. Poor quality.
There are more cars than asphalt in Beijing these days. Which is why I never drive anywhere. The subway is far more convenient.
And, according to my scientist friend, the low standards of gasoline quality contribute greatly to the problem. That sounds like the potential for an easy solution but it’s not. China is already the biggest automobile market in the world and employs who knows how many people.
And since the price the Chinese pay for gasoline is already several times what Americans pay, despite far less disposable income, the government is understandably treading lightly on forcing the State-owned energy companies to change their refining standards.
There are also natural impediments to clean air, just as there were in Los Angeles in past decades. Beijing is surrounded on three sides by mountains so when the wind stops, or there is a temperature inversion, the air just sits and collects particulates.
The citizens aren’t happy and the government knows it. To its credit, however, the government publishes pollution data in real time from 24 monitoring stations around the city. Almost every citizen, including myself, has downloaded the free app onto their smart phone. It shows the average data from all of the monitoring stations plus the specific data from the monitoring station nearest to your current location.
On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, the Air Quality Index (AQI) was at 500, the top of the reportable scale. Nobody knows what it ultimately was.
Unfortunately, today, December 8, the smog has returned and is expected to last four days. The government has issued an orange alert level, meaning only half of the cars can drive on any given day based on an even/odd plate number system. Factories and construction sites must limit their activity or shut down altogether.
When the picture of the National Stadium, otherwise known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ was taken the AQI was just above 300 and the PM 2.5 level was above 250, causing the government to warn citizens to wear masks, preferably with charcoal filters when traveling outdoors.
The government readily admits to the problem and is doing all it can to resolve the problem but air pollution levels are not expected to level out until 2020. People want clean air but it appears they want cars more. The Beijing subway system already carries more passengers than any other subway system in the world (12 million on a peak day) and is second in length only to Shanghai.
What’s truly amazing, however, is that according to WHO China only has one city in the list of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, and it’s not Beijing. Most of the top cities are in India (the world’s largest democracy) and Pakistan. Delhi sits atop the list.
The world has a problem that is taking millions of lives per year. And based on what came out of the climate talks held in Paris recently it appears the world’s leaders aren’t quite owning up to the severity of the problem.
In the end it really won’t matter what personal liberties people have if the air they breathe is killing them.
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
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