Residents Told to Stay Inside Again, Smog Covers Beijing

Beijing warned the city’s 20 million people to prepare for at least another day of smog, and officials closed some factories and ordered government cars off the road as pollution remained at hazardous levels.

Visibility was reduced to a few hundred yards in downtown Beijing and an online merchant reported “overwhelming” interest in face masks yesterday. A U.S. Embassy pollution monitor showed that air quality reached hazardous levels for the 19th in 25 days.

Premier Wen Jiabao said China should promote energy-saving measures, reduce emissions and advance ecological progress in light of the pollution, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The smog has remained dense after hitting record levels on Jan. 12 and Beijing officials have proposed new rules aimed at improving air quality.

“I haven’t seen the smog stay so long like this for years,” a 40-year-old woman who only gave her last name, Zhou, said after buying two air purifiers for more than 13,000 yuan ($2,000) each in downtown Beijing. “This seems to be the only solution for us. You used to just open the windows to get fresh air at home, but now you can’t do that since it’s even dirtier outside.”

The concentration of PM2.5, the fine air particulates that pose the greatest human health risk, was 302 micrograms per cubic meter at 10 a.m., according to the U.S. Embassy monitoring station. The level at the monitoring station closest to Tiananmen Square was 189 and had averaged 300 in the past 24 hours, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. The World Health Organization recommends 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 of no higher than 25.

Air Quality

Today’s air quality was given the worst rating on the city’s six-level scale, which includes a recommendation to avoid outdoor activities, according to the city monitoring center’s website.

Beijing will temporarily halt production at 103 companies that produce high emissions, while government agencies and state-owned companies were ordered to cut vehicle use by 30 percent through Jan. 31, the Beijing Environment Bureau said on its website yesterday. The city’s air quality is expected to improve starting that night, the bureau said.

Authorities should give people hope through actions, a statement on the central government’s website yesterday cited Wen as saying at a meeting to discuss a draft of the premier’s annual work report. Chinese state media have warned that the smog could threaten the country’s economic growth and raises questions about policies that sacrifice the environment for the sake of development.

Flights Canceled

Twenty-three flights were canceled at Beijing Capital International Airport as of 10:50 a.m. today out of 1,625 scheduled, the airport said on its website. “Low-visibility weather will continue to affect the airport” today, it said in a statement yesterday.

Exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012, and led to economic losses of $1.08 billion, according to estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health. China, which the World Bank estimates has 16 of the 20 most-polluted cities globally, is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

“Beijing has a goal of building itself into a world city,” the China Daily newspaper said in an editorial yesterday. “What is a world city? It should definitely not be a city that has most of its winter days shrouded in smog.”

Proposed Rules

Official measurements of PM2.5 rose to 993 in Beijing on Jan. 12. The city has proposed rules to scrap old vehicles, ban new cement and steel factories, and impose fines for roadside vendors barbecuing food on smoggy days.

Further measures to clean up the capital may be difficult because much of Beijing’s smog comes from surrounding regions, Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview.

“China is the world’s biggest steel producer, and half of China’s steel is produced in areas around Beijing such as Hebei and Tianjin, mostly by burning coal,” Ma said. “How can the region stand this?”

Wang Anshun, Beijing’s newly-appointed mayor, said pollution should be the local government’s top priority, China Daily reported yesterday. Beijing will tighten emissions criteria for new cars to match the strictest European Union standards starting next month.

Paying Attention

“It’s not going to be easy to solve but it’s not OK not to pay attention to it,” Wang Yiqing, a 16-year-old student, said as she walked with a friend in Beijing. “It’s important to realize the seriousness of the problem.”

Customer service agents at online shops on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Taobao marketplace couldn’t handle the demand for face masks and posted automated messages telling customers which ones offered the best protection.

“There’s been an explosion of people buying masks recently because of air pollution in Beijing and Hebei province,” read one such message. “Please submit orders on your own.”

— With assistance by Dingmin Zhang, and Baizhen Chua

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