Worst smog spurs finger-pointing among government departments

By Jiang Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-2 0:28:02

Media, public question response after five days of smog

Government departments have given conflicting explanations for the worst smog of 2015 that has engulfed Beijing and much of North China for five days, highlighting what observers say is a lack of coordination and perpetual recriminations in the country's attempt to tackle pollution.

By 8 am Tuesday, average monitoring data in southwest Beijing was 745 micrograms per cubic meter, almost 30 times more than the World Health Organization's standard safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

As the pollution spurred much protest on the Internet, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development hurried to its own defense.

In an interview with the People's Daily on Tuesday, the ministry said "the winter heating was only the last straw that crushed the air quality."

"The main cause for the smog in Beijing was automobile emissions," the anonymous official from the ministry pointed out to the People's Daily.

That comment was countered almost immediately by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center, which said its analysis of the airborne particles shows that the burning of coal was the culprit behind the smog.

Much of rural North China relies on coal for winter heating. The burning of large quantities of low-quality coal has in the past years contributed greatly to the air pollution.

Departmental buck-passing

While the public questioned the departmental buck-passing, analysts noted that it does in fact reflect a lack of pollution source analysis and coordinated efforts to effectively combat pollution.

"A large quantity of coal is still being burned every year in the areas around Beijing, including Tianjin and Hebei Province, and the severe smog in the capital is closely linked to coal-burning pollutant transmission from those regions. Authorities must look at the pollution issue at the regional level," Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based NGO Institute of Public Environment Affairs (IPE), told the Global Times.

Zhang Yuanxun, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Global Times that regions to the northwest and northeast of Beijing may be the main sources of pollutants, based on data from the same period last year.  

China lags behind in pollution source analysis due to inadequate government financial support and the lack of an open nationwide monitoring database on pollution. While individual coal-burning is to blame, this year's smog is also a possible result of an early temperature drop which creates conditions for different emissions to form more pollutants, Zhang noted.

An online pollution map from the IPE, which shows real-time monitoring data on company emissions, also revealed that more than 10 companies based in the region still discharged excessive emissions on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, polluters ordered to cut or suspend production in two consecutive years in Beijing will be obliged to pay professionals to improve their existing emissions treatment facilities or build new ones, Zhang Guohong, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform said Tuesday.

Doubts over measures

Late on Tuesday, the public was still awaiting the arrival of a cold weather front, which the Beijing Meteorological Service forecast would approach Hebei Province late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning and would blow away the smog.

Authorities in Beijing said it will remove an orange alert at midnight Tuesday, which was imposed at noon on Sunday.

The government has demanded industrial plants to reduce or shut down production and ban building and demolition at construction sites as well as transportation of materials and waste. Heavy-duty trucks were also banned from the roads.

As the heavy air pollution entered its fifth day in Beijing - far exceeding the 72-hour standard to issue a red alert - the public and media began to raise doubts over the authorities' pollution control efforts.

"Classes should be suspended under such atmospheric conditions, but it has become a victim of the current red alert system, which is a tough decision for the authorities. There would be high social costs to suddenly implement an odd-even license plate scheme on alternate days which would affect tens of thousands of private vehicles," Ma said.

The health hazard caused by the smog cannot be immediately determined. But Zhu Yifang, a deputy director at the Center for Clean Air of University of California, Los Angeles, told finance magazine Caixin that airborne particulate density would be nearly equivalent to that of the Great Smog air-pollution event in London in 1952, which caused the premature deaths of about 4,000 people.


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