Breathless in Beijing

Print edition : March 21, 2014

Central Beijing covered by a heavy haze on February 13. Motor vehicles are one of the biggest sources of some of the worst pollutants in the city. Photo: Jason Lee/reuters

A WEEK in Beijing in mid-February confirmed what many people have been saying for a while now: if you can somehow avoid it, it is better not to breathe the air outside. With one exception, every day was grey and hazy, the sky not so much overcast as simply limp, heavy and fatigued. The grand buildings and enormous skyscrapers that line the streets of the city loomed as hazy shadows, barely visible in the all-encompassing smog. The generalised greyness made it hard to distinguish between dawn, midday and dusk. The days were shrouded in dullness, while the nights made stargazing seem like a thing of the past.

The exception was one unexpectedly delightful day when the sky suddenly cleared to reveal a sun that actually shone brightly down on the cold city, on buildings and streets that seemed to sparkle in sheer exuberance in the sudden brightness. This was a gift, residents said, of dry winds that had temporarily swept away the smog. But it was a short-lived, ephemeral present, serving as an almost painful reminder of how much was being missed all the rest of the time.

It is true that this particular week may have been exceptionally bad even by Beijing standards. The city’s authorities raised the four-tier air pollution alert system to the second highest level (orange, just below red) for the first time in the year, as atmospheric pollution readings measuring six major pollutants at monitoring stations in the downtown area suggested an Air Quality Index of more than 300, more than 10 times the level considered “safe” by the World Health Organisation.

The results of such high levels of air pollution are now only too well known, going well beyond headaches, simple coughs and sore throats to major respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It has also been linked to higher levels of cancer, especially after some time. The WHO estimates that outdoor air pollution results in about 3.5 million deaths a year across the world but concedes that this number may be an underestimate because of unknown lagged effects.

The Chinese government—and the Beijing government in particular —now clearly tries to be more proactive in dealing with this extreme atmospheric pollution. The city’s authorities ordered 36 companies to halt production entirely and another 75 to reduce output. Industries involved in metallurgy, construction materials and chemicals were told to close. Earthwork construction was suspended at all building sites. Freight trucks and those carrying construction materials were told to stay off the road to reduce vehicular emission. Outdoor barbecues were temporarily banned. Water was sprayed on the major streets to reduce dust.

People were urged to stay indoors as much as possible and to use public transportation, with the Beijing Subway extending its services by half an hour. Private cars are already restricted to plying on one out of every five days (based on number plates). Schools and kindergartens were advised to cancel all outdoor activities. Meanwhile, more people who were forced to step outside wore anti-pollution face masks, resulting in a big spurt of online sales of such masks.

Even so, the anti-pollution measures appeared to have little effect, at least in the next few days, as the smoggy haze continued. Some experts blamed warmer weather and increasing humidity, which hindered the dispersal of pollutants. Others rued the absence of strong winds that could sweep across the plain and clean up the air as they had on that sparkling sunny day. Still others pointed out that no one, even the scientific experts, really knows what determines the changing levels of pollution over different days and weeks. But clearly, while nature can be blamed for some of the mess, the role of human activity in creating the overall conditions for this cannot be denied.

In Chinese cities, burning coal for power plants is a major source of air pollution. But running motorised vehicles, which is on the rise, is the biggest source of some of the worst pollutants such as particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), which is tiny enough to enter deep into the lungs and get embedded there. And the addiction to private motor car transport seems to be growing rather than diminishing.

China’s rapid increase in incomes and wealth has thus had contrary effects. The rich and the newly emerging middle class want their own vehicles, sometimes several, to cope with requirements of multiple family members as well as to counter the requirement of staying off the road on alternate days. But this obviously adds substantially to both road congestion and air pollution. And the worse such pollution gets, the more people are tempted to use cars that protect them at least to some extent, rather than public transport that would require them to walk or stand on the roads for longer periods. This is especially so since the otherwise extensive public transport system does not have good connections across different subway lines and bus stops.

Meanwhile, the signals coming from the government are also contradictory and often perverse given the broader economic context. Official attempts to rebalance the economy away from exports towards domestic consumption include incentives to purchase consumer durables such as automobiles, which are in any case possibly the most prized symbols of achieving middle-class status across developing Asia. While China is now the largest market in the world for passenger cars, the car-to-population ratio even in urban China is still a small fraction of that in most developed countries, and less than one-tenth of that in the United States, for example. So there is plenty of scope—at least in terms of demand—for the number of private vehicles to grow, though the city of Beijing now has a staggering 5.2 million vehicles.

But there is no reason for other Asians to pity the Chinese in particular. Beijing is now scarcely unusual among Asian cities, and China is only one of the many countries where urban air quality has deteriorated rapidly in the past decade. Indeed, a much-discussed study from Yale University recently suggested that atmospheric pollution in Delhi was even worse than in Beijing (although this was speedily contested by Indian authorities as being based on only one indicator). As urban residents in South Asia can testify, this region is among the worst in the world for urban atmospheric pollution. Indeed, the five worst-off countries identified by the Yale study (in descending order) were India, Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The sad thing is that South Asia is experiencing these dreadful levels of air pollution, and all the attendant adverse health effects, at much lower levels of per capita income and overall development than China. And our governments also appear to be less proactive in trying to deal with the problem. The fact that we have achieved such spectacularly high levels of atmospheric pollution at still low levels of per capita income, and with much of the development projects still far from complete, makes the environmental challenge that much greater. We may share our asthma, coughs and lung diseases with our urban Chinese counterparts, but we still lag far behind even in the health facilities to deal with them.