'Airmageddon': China smog raises modernisation doubts

Flag-raising ceremony on Beijing's Tiananmen Square during severe pollution Red alert? Across Beijing, there is no escaping the blanket of pollution

Related Stories

All week in Beijing, in offices and homes, in lifts and shops, restaurants, taxis and buses, one topic has dominated conversation - Beijing's foul air.

The descriptions of the grey smog that's hung over the city get more and more extreme: "Airmageddon", the "Airpocalypse".

Walking out into Beijing's streets is like plunging into a swirling soup. The pollution swathes the city, wreathing everything in grey.

To get a sense of it, take a look at this slideshow of before and after pictures that give a sense of what China's toxic sky is really like.

A combination of coal emissions, dirty diesel and industrial gases, the smog has smothered everything for days. On Thursday, levels still hovered around the "very unhealthy" mark.

As the official Xinhua news agency reported, more flights were delayed at Tianjin close to Beijing. Visibility in Shandong province south of Beijing was just 50m (164ft).

On Thursday, too, there were reported to be more than 100 cars in crashes in Beijing. The roads were icy and slippery, but poor visibility cannot have helped.

What were billed as "tough" measures brought in by Beijing's government this week to try to improve things simply have not been enough.

On Tuesday, 103 factories were ordered to shut down, and a third of government cars ordered off the roads to combat what was already being described as the worst January smog since 1954.

But even state-controlled media now say Beijing's tough measures were ignored by city officials themselves.

Hoping for wind

More than 800 government vehicles ordered off the roads were still in use, and several construction sites ordered suspended were still active on Wednesday, Xinhua reported.

So everyone now is looking at the weather forecast, hoping the smog will be blown away by winds forecast for Friday.

That's about the only thing that will bring some respite.

A bigger question will linger even after the smog has cleared: can China curb its polluting ways for good?

Start Quote

Chinese New Year is just days away. Letting off vast quantities of fireworks are part of the Spring Festival celebrations, but they produce huge amounts of pollution”

End Quote

January's pollution has afflicted not just Beijing and its 20 million people, but more than 30 major cities and many tens of millions of people in addition.

As the Communist Party's English-language tabloid the Global Times put it in an editorial on Thursday: "China's rapid development has brought us many benefits as well as accumulated many problems. Environmental protection should take up a more prominent position in China's future strategy even if it means that China's economic development will slow down."

"Chinese people," the paper said, "should not tolerate environmental pollution for the pursuit of wealth... We cannot keep going with the situation that we have today."

The difficult bit is how to change the path China is on.

On the plus side, then, there is a growing realisation things have to change, and the media are now being allowed to debate the issue.

China's government seems to be in agreement. This week the cabinet approved an energy consumption "control target" for energy use by 2015.

A boy wears a mask on Beijing's Tiananmen Square People are getting used to living with smog

On the minus side, that "control target" still means China's energy use will continue to expand, and, crucially, so will the burning of coal.

As Xinhua reported: "to meet the target, average annual energy consumption growth should be controlled at around 4.3% between 2011 and 2015, lower than the 6.6-percent annual increase realized between 2006 and 2010".

That means more emissions to come.

And as if to prove that changing China's habits will be hard, there is another worry on the immediate horizon.

Chinese New Year is just days away. Letting off vast quantities of fireworks is part of the Spring Festival celebrations, but the fireworks produce huge amounts of pollution.

More smog predicted

"Setting off fireworks contributed greatly to air pollution in Beijing for half a month after Spring Festival in 2011," according to Du Shaozhong, former deputy director of Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

Eight million people had already posted messages on China's Weibo microblogs this week debating whether the fireworks should be stopped this year.

But the office in charge of Beijing's firework industry has said that residents can set off fireworks during the Spring Festival holiday according to the regulations, but that the office hopes residents will refrain from doing so, the China Daily reported.

I predict more smog.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

Uncovering China's illegal ivory trade

Demand for ivory in China has pushed levels of poaching to new highs. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas investigates China's illegal ivory traders.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    To call China a "blight on the face of the globe" & "should be banned from the world's civilised community" - as RememberTS says, is going too far even for those who think China's government is a bad one. To penalise China would hurt the ordinary populace the most - like the man on the street who just wants to make a living, live in peace - and in a clean environment. Also, to say China has "no freedom" - RememberTS clearly has forgotton (& has insulted) Hong Kong & The Republic of China (Taiwan) - which DO have Western-style freedoms - and make the most of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    one can't give a damn about the environment with an empty stomach. "smog capital" used to be London's title. as a chinese citizen, I'd like to see more development with more environmental awareness. but you can't have it both ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The filthiest capital city in the world.That's nothing compared to China's appalling ruling gang in Beijing, its disregard for any sort of human rights or moral values. China is a blight on the face of the globe , it is exactly the same as Japan was in the region during the 1930s : totalitarian,no freedoms,militaristic, big ideas on how to rule the world. And just like that Japanese regime, China will eventually go too far and be finished. They should be banned from the world's civilised community. GO !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Despite the large land area that comprises China it has relatively little arable land compared to the size of its population.What there is of it is being raped through overdevelopment and misdevelopment.Desertification, elimination of farms, destruction of neighborhoods and towns for expensive homes and industrial areas is contribuiting to making China an undesirable place to live.It's why those who get rich there often choose to live elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Why doesn't china go more with nuclear energy? The reliance on coal will only worsen the smog problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I'm afraid it's the price they are paying for pursuing rapid economic development at the expense of nature.
    The Chinese are discovering that managed, sustained growth is something of an art which requires a lot more acumen and careful planning than a simple, gung-ho 'let's get rich in the shortest possible time' attitude.

    It's not for nothing that neighbouring S Korea and Japan both took over 50 years for their economies to fully mature - nothing in this world can be done at breakneck pace without incurring serious side-effects (in this case to the environment).

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    When I read the headlines it says that the smog in China's largest cities is going to slow down the economy. On the next line it says China's economy is booming as always. Many in the west sincerely hope that China doesn't succeed. They also hope China doesn't eventually rule the world, because this will not only undermine democracy, but will bring about dramatic global changes. China is certainly on the road toward global dominance, and anyone who feels or thinks differently is a fool. The west cannot stop the rise of China, and it is just a matter of time until the juggernaut controls all.

  • Comment number 54.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    There is a tendency to see China as an economic super power, in the same time a third world country working eagerly to improve economically but incapable of compromising between growth and citizen well-being.

    Been the 2nd largest economy in the world, forsaking all else in the name of growth , then reasons that all developing countries did the same is no longer a viable argument. Most Chinese officials have personal interests in all kinds of businesses, and curbing costs in running those businesses have personal benefits. Also people are just lazy and tend to stick to what is already working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I live and study in Beijing. Yes the smog can be truly bad some days, but a mere 12 hours after this article was posted the smog has totally cleared judging by the view outside my window.

    The people here just want to make better lives for themselves and their families. Chinas power consumption is shooting up as more and more people are buying their first fridge, air con or computer and who are we to deny them these things that we in the west take for granted? So to those who say they have no sympathy, ask yourself if you are prepared to give up those things to help clean up the air..

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I don't have much sympathy for China's smog situation. They've known this was coming at least a decade in advance and completely ignored it. It's a very Asian mindset to spend as little as possible on problems, much like a cheap landlord using glue and duct tape to repair your flat. It takes about three years to build a powerplant. China is massively dependent on coal fueled plants, despite being the most pollutive. With so many "future" stages in planning, this is clearly a bed they've made. The problem is that China's neighbors suffer from their redneck behavior. Look up "yellow dust".

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The best way to stop global pollution is to cut off the head of the snake.

    Relentless consumerism for pointless products that fulfil ego rather than function.

    If consumers only bought what they needed and in a considerate way then China (and others) would simply produce & pollute less.

    Sadly over population and changing demographics are having a dramatic effect on consumer demand for both natural and produced resources - to the delight of industry but at expense of the planet.

    We can all talk and wish as much as we like...but sadly, i am not optimistic for future generations...

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Burning coal alone doesn't cause the kind of pollution which is now affecting cities in China. The ruthless thirst for growth by all means possible is the cause behind the pollution. The Chinese government doesn't seem to care about the average city dweller, and the government is doing very little to curb the filthy air.

    China's main, and foremost aim is to grow no matter what. Pollution is just and end product to them. Other nations follow certain standard, but if one or two, or three nations refuse there's little that can be done. Rapid Global warming is based on human pollutants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Perhaps rather than adding more and more HSE laws in the EU and US we should consider making the existing law's globally applicable. If you make a product (or own a company that makes a product) in China using child labor in a filthy disgusting way and sell it in the UK why can't you be charged in the UK? If you commit a crime in London doesn't mean you can't be arrested, charged and convicted in Newcastle. Change the Law and get the CEO's of big multinationals to clean up the place rather than the government of a foreign country who you have no control over. China is everyone's mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    China's greed for growth is not only creating domestic pollution.

    China has been heavily 'investing' in energy & mineral resources in other countries for years, especially in mineral rich emerging economies who have a desperate need for FDI and have very lax regulatory or environmental controls.

    Not only does China pollute environmentally but also politically through bribery and corruption as they will do anything to supply their energy.

    China has become like Pacman...relentlessly & greedily chomping away at anything it needs in front of it..and it will just go on and on and on...

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    On the whole Chinese citizens are alienated from nature. A good indicator is the almost total absense of hotel rooms over looking nice scenary in quiet locations. Hotels are often next to Karaoke bars and on busy roads. Also you will not see any dead animals on the road - even in very rural sparsely populated localtions. You can see more wild mammals in the centre of London in one day than in 2 years in my rural Chinese location. This is a major reason why China has pollution. Attitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    If anyone thinks China (or other emerging economies) will curb growth to cut pollution, they are high on fumes. I live in an emerging country with +260m people and the lack of education or care creates incredible pollution as people get rich quick or simply struggle to survive.

    Its NOT statistics that need controlling its human attitude & greed.

    Sadly a story like this gets a fraction of the comments or interest that Posh n Becks get when they move...just shows you where society is today and where its social, moral and ecological priorities are...

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Reminds me of when I was a student in Manchester in the 1960s. During the winter, you could taste the sulphur dioxide (from domestic fires) in the air.

    I live in Hong Kong now, and I haven't seen a decent sunset in decades, thanks to the pollution drifting over the border from Guangdong province. The sun disappears into the murk at least an hour before what I might call the "official" time for it to set.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I live in China and environmentally it shocks me. City polltution is a true nighmare but the countryside is being raped also. An area the size of Wales with a population of just 1 million has had 80% of all its tropical forest cut down in 20years. I get so tired of trite excuses in China that say the population is large, or developed countries did the same when they industrialised. Corruption, fear, ignorance and greed are responsible. Thailand and Japan did not do this! Many Chinese think there is no choice. But that is becasue money is king only.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.




Page 1 of 4



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.