Dark clouds still shroud blue skies

By Kou Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-29 21:28:01

Public worries about smog-choked cities drive change

Two pedestrians wear masks in a smoggy day at a Beijing street. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Air pollution has been a major concern for China throughout 2015, a year that marked a new phase in the country's air pollution control efforts, analysts said, after many cities were engulfed by hazardous smog and multiple measures were initiated against air pollution for the first time.

After 2015 began with a controversial documentary about the hazards of smog, Under the Dome, the country has seen a rising public awareness of air pollution, as well as more measures from the government to curb the deterioration of air quality. Though Beijing's first-ever pollution red alert came at the end of the year, the country's battle against air pollution has just begun.

Analysts pointed out that though the air pollution is still severe, both the government and the public have been making efforts on fighting air pollution in 2015, which shows "a silver lining" and the possibility of blue skies in the future.

Government's actions

"China's air quality in 2015 saw the possibility of improvement compared to the past few years, but the results are still not promising," Wang Gengchen, a research fellow from the institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Science, told the Global Times.

Data released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in July showed that the average density of PM2.5 particles, or particulate matter under 2.5 micrometers in size, in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta in the first half of 2015 dropped respectively by 22 percent, 16.2 percent, and 20.5 percent, compared to the same period last year, while hundreds of cities across China enjoyed around 130 days without serious air pollution.

"The data shows that the government's efforts to curb pollution have had preliminary success and the air quality has improved," Li Zuojun, deputy director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, told the Global Times.

"A series of laws and educational programs on environmental protection also helped curb air pollution," Wang Canfa, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

The Environmental Protection Law, which was implemented in January, imposes harsher punishment for environmental violations and has specific articles and provisions on tackling smog.

However, heavy air pollution choked many cities in the second half of 2015 due to unfavorable meteorological conditions and other factors including straw-burning and the use of coal-powered heating, Wang said.

On December 7, Beijing issued its first-ever red alert, the highest in the four-tier warning system. Under the red alert, half of the city's 5.57 million registered vehicles were taken off the road each day, while up to 2,100 factories were ordered to shut down. The first red alert lasted for 3 days and the second was issued on December 18.

Based on an MEP statement received by the Global Times in October, the number of straw-burning areas increased to 862 from October 5 to 17 across China, 54 more than the same period last year, while many enterprises had failed to initiate emergency response plans to cope with the pollution after Beijing issued its first-ever red alert, the Xinhua News agency reported in December.

"The problem lies in the implementation of related polices. The government should increasingly strictly enforce the law given these bad practices," Wang added.

Apart from that, the government's failure to issue a timely forecast was also criticized by the public. Earlier in December, the heavy smog spurred mutual finger-pointing among government departments after discontent and protests grew on the Internet.

Agencies or personnel who fail to implement the pollution emergency response plan in a timely manner will be strictly punished, China's Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jinping said during a conference on air pollution in December.

"Despite its relatively loose supervision on the implementation of related policies, the government has taken more effective measures in 2015 to curb the air pollution, which shows the authorities' determination to protect the environment," Wang said.

Public awareness awakens

Public opinion had also pushed the government to take more measures to curb the smog, Li told the Global Times earlier.

Chinese e-commerce mogul Jack Ma jokingly said at the COP21 conference in Paris in December that he wishes he were an alien so that he could flee to another planet to avoid the terrible smog, news portal ifeng.com reported.

Ma's quip reflected the feelings of many ordinary people about the air pollution. Driven by wide criticism online, Beijing authorities for the first time issued an orange alert two days before a new wave of smog was forecast to shroud the city on December 5.

"Tackling air pollution has become a major concern for both the government and public. The public has rational opinions and demands to curb air pollution now, which is big progress," Dong Liansai, a Greenpeace air pollution observer told the Global Times.

Mutual understanding and cooperation should be established between the government and the public, since the public now plays an increasingly important role in dealing with air pollution, Wang said.

Chinese people are also learning how to protect themselves from health problems caused by air pollution, Dong added, noting that more people are wearing masks compared to a few years ago.

Chinese customers have snapped up anti-pollution products in 2015 as the air pollution in China has worsened. According to Syntun, a Beijing-based data company, consumers on China's online shopping platforms bought 571,310 air purifiers on November 11, also known as the Singles' Day shopping festival, which surpassed the sales of last November.

Air pollution has also strongly affected people's daily lives, as some citizens reached by the Global Times talked of their discontent and helplessness. Parents beset by hazardous smog in Beijing are calling for air purifiers to be installed in classrooms, as many cannot take time off work to look after their children when schools close due to severe pollution.

Air purifiers are not on government purchase lists in many cities, which means many local education authorities cannot dedicate part of their budget to purifiers, a newspaper affiliated to the Ministry of Education reported in December. "I don't want my boy to suffer from smog, but I also don't want him to lag behind in his studies. Air pollution has disrupted our life, and we feel quite helpless sometimes," Li Hui, the mother of an elementary school student, told the Global Times.

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