Beijing has declared its first ever "red alert" for smog

Why Beijing Declared Its First Ever “Red Alert” for Smog

Why Beijing Declared Its First Ever “Red Alert” for Smog

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The Slatest
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Dec. 8 2015 4:37 PM

Why Beijing Declared Its First Ever “Red Alert” for Smog

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A Chinese man wears a mask to protect against pollution as he visits Jingshan Park overlooking the Forbidden City in heavy smog on December 8, 2015 in Beijing, China.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Schools, construction sites, and factories have been shut down in Beijing, and half of privately owned cars have been ordered off the road as China’s capital has issued it’s first ever “red alert” for pollution under a four-tiered system adopted in 2013.

The latest of the city’s periodic smog events, nicknamed “airpocolypses,” began last week. Measurements of PM2.5, the harmful microscopic particles in smog, are above 300, according to the real-time air quality monitor at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The World Health Organization recommends a maximum exposure of 25.

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China’s infamous smog is caused by coal-fueled power plants and heavy industry combined with vehicle emissions. Humidity and a lack of wind can exacerbate the problem, and pollution usually gets worse in winter when demand for heating spikes. The BBC notes that the reason the “red alert” was issued this week isn’t because the air quality has gotten markedly worse—it’s actually improved from last week—but because “the lack of any previous red alerts has been met with increasingly loud howls of derision” from the Chinese public. As I’ve written before, air pollution has sparked more open public debate in China than other contentious issues, likely because it can’t exactly be hidden. The state-run media devotes heavy coverage to the consequences of smog and even, to some extent, shaming the perpetrators.

The optics are particularly bad this time around, as negotiators from the world’s leading carbon emitter are currently in Paris working to hammer out an international carbon emissions deal. China has resisted hard targets on emissions and maintains that climate change measures shouldn’t affect countries’ ability to develop economically, but China has pledged to peak its emissions around 2030 and reduce the pollutants coming from its coal plans 60 percent by 2020. Though recently revised numbers suggest China hasn’t cut its reliance on coal as much as hoped, China’s steps to reduce coal use—with an assist from the country’s slowing economy—are a big part of why global emissions appear to be on track to decline this year.

To the extent that Chinese authorities are taking Xi Jinping’s “war on pollution” seriously, the motivating factor is less the environment and more the fed up city dwellers, who are getting pretty tired of living inside a poisonous, disgusting cloud for weeks at a time. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.