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Toxic smog greets Chinese people in New Year

The government has set a priority to enforcing compliance of environmental laws and holding officials accountable

Toxic smog greets Chinese people in New Year

A man wears a mask while visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing on Dec. 21. Beijing issued its first air pollution red alert for 2016 on Dec. 15. (Photo by AFP) 

Published: January 09, 2017 06:50 AM GMT

Updated: January 09, 2017 09:47 AM GMT

The New Year 2017 was greeted with heavy smog in 61 cities in northern and northeastern China. The country is now the world’s deadliest for outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The China Meteorological Administration issued an orange alert before New Year’s Eve, which deteriorated into a red alert on Jan 4. The situation should improve after a week.

Smog has become the talk of the city since the Beijing city government issued the highest red alert in mid-December, 2016. The education bureau has suggested schools shorten class time or even suspend classes. 

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"The smog comes more frequently. We don’t know how many school days would be left in the future," said Mary Li, a tutor.

Outdoor activities are affected. People are inhaling polluted air that contains a type of very small and dangerous pollutant particle known as PM2.5, which is small enough to pass from the lungs and into the bloodstream. Hospitals and clinics are packed with patients.

Wang, a clerk at a supermarket, believes the smog turned serious five years ago. "People used to buy surgical masks. But now they all look for the professional ones for construction use," she told ucanew.com.



Women wear a mask to avoid breathing toxic smog in front of Tiananmen Square in December. (ucanews.com photo)


Top country with deadly air pollution

Last September the WHO released a report about air pollution levels and named China the most deadly for outdoor air pollution.

The report was conduct by 16 scientists from eight international organizations. They analyzed samples of the miniscule PM2.5 particles, mainly produced by vehicles and factories, from 3,000 locations around the world. They discovered that over 3 million people died from air pollution and that over one third of casualties were from China.

"Environmental issue remains conceptual for many people. The WHO report is not to scare us but to tell in a concrete way the social cost of air pollution," said Albert Lai of CarbonCare InnoLab, an environmental NGO in Hong Kong.

"It means life and health. It also pointed out the problem of ignoring the environment for economic development, like China has," he told ucanews.com.


State policy causes controversy

Taking the issue seriously, the Chinese government has set a priority to combat air pollution through strengthening environmental laws, enforcing compliance and holding officials accountable. However, there are drawbacks to the policy.

For example, in June the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress suggested including smog in laws about the prevention and control of meteorological disasters, to raise awareness and increase protection mechanisms.

However, commentary in the Legal Daily criticized the legislation and questioned the authority’s willingness to solve the problem.

Liu Xun, the author of the article, quoted environmental experts who noted smog is caused by human activities and is not a natural disaster. "Listing the smog into the law may let the polluter escape legal responsibilities," he said.


Sacrificing nature for economic growth

Between economic growth and the environment however, some people still believe smog is unavoidable in the process of economic development.

Paul Chen moved from northern Hebei province to Beijing 20 years ago. Although the smog is affecting his life, he thinks this happens in all developing countries.

"Do you know the London was called ‘the smog city’? That was caused by industrialization. China started industrialization very late. It is still growing and the pollution comes eventually," said Chen, a trader.

"Of course, no smog is good but our country has to develop," said Mr Li, a street cleaner in Beijing. "I can handle the dust on the ground but not in the sky," he said while sweeping the floor.

Catherine Hung, a Catholic environmentalist in Hong Kong, does not agree with these viewpoints. "People should not just focus on economic growth but re-think which direction the society should go," she said.

"The deaths caused by air pollution are obvious. Everyone should wake up and take responsibility," she added.

However, Father Anthony, a Catholic priest from Shanxi, a central province famous for its coal industry, is pessimistic about national awareness. "It is not easy, especially for rural farmers."

"If they stayed in the province their whole life, how would they know a blue sky in the coastal area? Also, they are more concerned about their land than the air they inhale," he said.

WHO spokesperson Sophie Gumy told ucanews.com that the most serious consequences of air pollution would be the health of the population and its associated costs. This cost will relate "not only to health care and productivity but also to the environmental and climate consequences," she said.

Although China has the highest level of carbon emission in the world, Lai of CabonCare noted it also has the fastest growth rate of investment in renewable energy and he believes there will be a turning point. 


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