BEIJING – Some residents took a smog holiday away from Beijing on Tuesday as the Chinese capital launched restrictions under its first red alert for pollution, closing schools, suspending factories and keeping half the vehicles off the streets.
Although Beijing has in recent years seen smog at much worse levels than Tuesday’s, the latest bout of pollution was the first to trigger a red alert under a 2-year-old system that requires a forecast at the outset of at least 72 hours of consecutive high pollution.
The capital’s hazardous smog has persisted despite the Chinese government’s stated priority of cleaning up the legacy of pollution left from years of full-tilt economic growth. Most of the smog is blamed on coal-fired power plants, along with vehicle emissions, construction and factory work.
“This is modern life for Beijing people. We wanted to develop, and now we pay the price,” Beijing office worker Cao Yong said during a break from work.
A grey soupy haze subsumed Beijing’s unique landmarks, convenience stores sold air-filtering masks at brisk rates and health-food stores promoted pear juice as a traditional Chinese tonic for the lungs.
“And air purifiers at home are a must,” Beijing resident Sun Yuanyuan said at a downtown Beijing juice shop.
WATCH: Beijing issued its first red smog alert on Monday due to heavy pollution plaguing the city’s skyline
Under restrictions in effect Tuesday through Thursday, schools were urged to close voluntarily unless they had good air filtration. However, Beijing’s education commission later followed up with a separate order for schools to close during the three-day alert. Some residents grumbled about the inconvenience, and a few international schools sought permission to reopen Wednesday.
A slew of Beijingers said via social media they planned to escape the gloom. They needed to travel relatively far, however, because nearly all of China’s northeast was affected, and many cities – including nearby Shijiazhuang – were even worse than Beijing.
After hearing of the school closings late Monday, Beijing mother Jiang Xia booked tickets for a 3,200 kilometre (2,000-mile) flight to the relatively clean southwestern city of Kunming, for herself and her 8-year-old daughter who she said suffers nosebleeds in the smog. She said in an interview from Kunming that they hectically packed before dawn Tuesday for their flight.
“But when we arrived in Kunming and breathed in this clean, fresh air, I was very glad I made this move – a very wise decision,” Jiang said.
Readings of PM2.5 particles climbed above 300 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the city Tuesday and were expected to continue rising before improving Thursday. The World Health Organization designates the safe level for the tiny, poisonous particles at 25.
Factory suspensions and several other restrictions will seek to reduce the dust and other particulate matter in the city of 22.5 million people. Use of a car is restricted to every other day depending on its license plate, and officials planned to deploy extra subway trains and buses to compensate.
Some businesses closed and others said employees could work from home for the duration.
A Beijing resident who gave his only his surname, Du, said he was taking advantage of a lack of crowds near the capital’s ancient Forbidden City to stroll and take unique photographs.
“I like this kind of haziness. It gives a blurry feeling and makes you feel like you’re in a dream,” Du said.
While the capital’s air improved in the first 10 months of the year compared with the same period last year, it has suffered two recent prolonged bouts of severe smog, which is typically worse in the winter and which last time sent PM 2.5 level as high as 976 in some locations.
A red alert requires a forecast of 72 straight hours of pollution levels of 300 or higher on the city’s air quality index. The index is closely linked to levels of PM2.5, although it also includes other pollutants. As an example, one Beijing monitoring site at midday showed an index reading of 308 and a PM2.5 reading of 258.
Previous stretches of severe smog have lasted more than three days but without any red alert. Beijing authorities said at the time that the initial forecasts were for less time so no alert was called for, but critics maintained they were seeking to avoid the toughest restrictions for political reasons.
Pressure from the central government and from the public resulted “in the Beijing city government releasing the red alert this time,” Greenpeace environmental campaigner Dong Liangsai said in an interview.
The WHO representative in China, Bernhard Schwartlaender, applauded Beijing’s move as a sign that the city is taking air quality and health issues “very seriously.”
China’s polluted air has had severe health effects. A study led by atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld of Germany’s Max Planck Institute and published in the journal Nature this year estimated 1.4 million people each year die prematurely because of China’s pollution.
The world’s biggest carbon emitter, China plans to upgrade coal power plants over the next five years to tackle the problem, and says its emissions will peak by around 2030 before starting to decline. Charcoal briquette-burning ovens that were once a major contributor to pollution are now much less common in Beijing, although they are still used widely in the countryside.
While emissions standards have been tightened and heavy investments made in solar, wind and other renewable energy, China still depends on coal for more than 60 per cent of its power.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen, video journalist Helene Franchineau and news assistants Dong Tongjian and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.