China Pollution Alert Curtails Steel Plants, Closes Schools

  • Air quality index reading in Beijing hazardous as of 4 p.m.
  • Red alert expected to be in effect until noon on Dec. 10

Beijing Issues First-Ever Air Pollution Red Alert

The severe smog blanketing Beijing has prompted the nearby Tangshan government to shut down all steel rolling plants during the daytime as air quality in the capital continued to deteriorate to hazardous levels.

The Tangshan Municipal Government issued a level-3 emergency response, effective from 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday, while the Hebei provincial government released an orange alert for smog within its jurisdiction, requesting frequent checks on emissions from all coal-fired furnaces and key industrial sites, according to Mysteel Research, an independent steel industry watcher. Two calls today to the Tangshan government weren’t immediately answered.

QuickTake QuickTake: Choking China

The measures come after Beijing for the first time raised its air pollution alert to red, the highest level in a four-tier system. The alert is effective from 7 a.m. Tuesday until noon Thursday.

Beijing has suspended schools, restricted car travel and banned fireworks and outdoor barbecuing as the Chinese capital copes with the thick blanket of gray smog that’s enveloped the city and is expected to remain in place for much of the week.

The local environmental protection bureau raised the red alert to warn of the dangers associated with extreme pollution levels, the first time the alarm has been raised to its highest level since introduction of an emergency air-pollution response system in 2013. The state-run Xinhua News Agency carried a picture of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium used in the 2008 Summer Olympics enshrouded in a curtain of gray smog.

PM2.5 Concentrations

Near Tiananmen Square in the capital’s center, concentrations of PM2.5 -- particulate considered the most danger to health -- stood at 249 micrograms per cubic meter as of 4 p.m., according to data on the website of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. The World Health Organization cautions against 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 at concentrations higher than 25.

China has increasingly relied on production cuts in nearby provinces to ensure blue skies and clean air in Beijing. The nation is the world’s largest steelmaker and Hebei is its largest producing region. The move follows similar cuts made ahead of a military parade in September and last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing.

The steel rolling plants are free to resume works during the night, according to Mysteel.

It’s not known why a red alert wasn’t issued at the end of last month when pollution levels soared. City officials have been criticized for not acting sooner, with much of the comment directed toward the question of why the government earlier issued only an orange alert, the second highest.

According to Xinhua, the rules establishing the four-tier emergency response system dictate that the highest alert should be issued when an Air Quality Index reading is expected to surpass 200 for three consecutive days.

Air Quality

Beijing’s AQI was 343 as of 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. A reading above 200 is expected to remain in place until Thursday morning at the earliest, according to the U.S. Embassy’s forecast. The U.S. Embassy’s website classifies the current AQI as “hazardous.”

Under the red alert, some industrial companies must stop or limit production, outdoor construction work is banned and primary schools and kindergartens are advised to cancel classes. Even healthy people should try to avoid outdoor activity and choose public transportation, according to the center. Only cars with either even or odd numbered license plates will be allowed on the road on certain days under the travel restrictions, according to the protection bureau.

The state of pollution in China’s capital city has reignited the debate over whether the government has the ability to tackle air quality problems despite repeated statements from leaders that cleaning up the environment is a top priority.

The smog enveloping Beijing and northern China also serves as a reminder of the urgency facing negotiators in Paris meeting at the moment in the hopes of hammering out a binding deal to limit global warming. Chinese officials have promised to limit coal use and have set a deadline of 2030 for greenhouse gas emissions to stop rising.

Limits to Coal

Earlier this month, China repeated plans to upgrade coal power plants in the next five years. 

The nation plans to cap average coal consumption at existing plants at 310 grams per kilowatt-hour by 2020 and 300 grams per kilowatt-hour at newly-built plants, according to a Dec. 2 statement posted on the website of the government following a regular State Council meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang. 

The measures would mean a reduction in raw coal consumption of 100 million metric tons annually, the statement said.

— With assistance by Feiwen Rong, and Feifei Shen

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