China’s Flight-Canceling Smog Lifts as Pollution Levels Drop

China’s Flight-Canceling Smog Lifts as Pollution Levels Drop
Business for air purifiers had hugely increased in the last few months as pollution reached unhealthy levels and the government switched on coal-fired heating plants. Photographer: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing’s pollution dropped from unhealthy levels as a cold front swept through the Chinese capital, allowing flights to resume after four days of smog that spurred criticism of the government’s environmental record.

Fog and snow forced the cancellation of almost 700 flights since Dec. 5, with 27 called off this afternoon, according to the Beijing Capital International Airport website. Pollution levels dropped below “unhealthy” for the first time since Dec. 3, according to data collected by a U.S. Embassy monitoring station.

The smog led people to buy more air filters and pollution masks, the Global Times and China Daily newspapers reported today. The Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, published an editorial saying the nation needed to “face the reality” of its pollution problem.

“Our pollution has become severe,” the unsigned editorial said. “It is time for us to shift our focus from development to protection.”

The U.S. Embassy’s pollution monitor, which measures air pollutants on a 500-point air quality index, had dropped at 2 p.m. to 57, classified as “moderate,” from 268, or “very unhealthy” six hours before. At 7 p.m. on Dec. 4, the U.S. monitor was above 500, or “beyond index.”

Source of Tension

The U.S. Embassy’s pollution feed on Twitter has been a source of tension with the Chinese government because it monitors pollutants of 2.5 micrometers in size. The Chinese government only releases data measuring pollutants that are 10 micrometers large, and its readings are often not as severe. Access to Twitter is blocked in China.

While the U.S. Twitter feed was reporting hazardous pollution levels on Dec. 4, for example, the China Environmental Monitoring Center released data showing that Beijing had been slightly polluted, with a measurement between 101 and 200, in the previous 24 hours. Fog warnings were issued for Beijing from the afternoon of Dec. 4 until this morning.

Today’s Global Times editorial said the discrepancy between the two readings was becoming an argument about credibility that the government could lose. Chinese environmental protection “is hardly a functional system,” it said.

The Global Times and China Daily, also state-controlled, ran stories reporting that sales of air purifiers, masks and humidifiers had risen since November. Chris Buckley, owner of Beijing-based Torana Clean Air Center, said business for air purifiers had been “tremendous” in the last few months as pollution reached unhealthy levels and the government switched on coal-fired heating plants.

“Toxic Soup”

“When the weather gets cold and the coal burning kicks in, you get this kind of toxic soup effect that’s happening,” Buckley said in a phone interview. “You see this haze anyway when you get a lot of pollution but on moist days it creates this smog effect which is fog with pollution in it.”

A second China Daily story today reported that lung cancer rates were expected to rise for the next 20 to 30 years even as smoking rates remain flat, and that worsened air pollution “could be a major culprit.” The report cited Shi Yuankai, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital

Before hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing imposed driving limits, suspended work at construction sites and moved factories out of the city to clean up the capital’s air. Beijing has targeted transforming all its heating plants to burning natural gas instead of coal by the end of 2015.

Restrictions started for the games that barred half the city’s privately owned cars from roads each day were eased afterwards so that each of the city’s automobiles is barred from driving one day a week depending on the last number of their license plates.

“There was some improvement in the run-up to the Olympics,” Buckley said. “In 2010 and 2011 it’s gotten bad again and we’ve definitely seen more sales as a result of that.”

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams

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