ucanews.com reporters, Beijing and Hong KongUpdated: November 15, 2015 05:51 PM GMT
This picture taken on Nov. 8 shows a residential block covered in smog in northeast China's Jilin province. (Photo by AFP)
Northeastern China will face some of the worst smog ever recorded for a few more days, prompting an angry response from ordinary Chinese weeks before key global climate talks in Paris.
After the city of Shenyang recorded 1,400 micrograms of PM2.5 particles on Nov. 8 — 56 times higher than the level of cancer-causing particles deemed harmful — weather forecasts said smog would not return to safe levels until Nov. 17.
About 300 million people in cities including Beijing have been affected, with many taking to social media to complain while the government made rare admissions that the problem has spiraled out of control.
"Such an environment is worrisome. But what can we ordinary people do? We cannot resolve this problem," said Maria, a church worker in Harbin who gave only her first name.
In nearby Changchun, PM2.5 readings hit more than 860 on Nov. 9 as cities across the region recorded the worst air pollution ever seen in China.
Trains have been delayed, roads closed and flights grounded in cities across the provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Hebei, Henan and in Beijing this week. People on social media posted pictures of buildings shrouded in mist and school children braving pollution in face masks.
"These days people are speechless. Going outside and thinking of the children who have to stay out in this haze makes my heart ache," wrote one user on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo.
Recent smog has coincided with new research by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences that found 900,000 cardiovascular deaths could be prevented by 2030 if air quality is managed at levels seen during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the weeks leading up to the games, authorities told factories outside the capital to shutter and ordered cars off the roads.
Although China has previously censored critical coverage of air pollution, including a documentary that went viral last year called "Under the Dome," state media have reported the severity of the smog this week.
Coverage has focused on government efforts to tackle the problem with factories forced to close as officials have made inspections to check on violators. They found 110 firms across the northeast failing to curb air pollution and a further 100 companies in the city of Fushun alone releasing unprocessed gases straight into the atmosphere.
"Many problems affecting air quality were found in some enterprises, especially in small-scale companies and coal-burning heating units," Zou Shoumin, head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection inspection bureau, was quoted as saying by the nationalistic tabloid Global Times on Nov. 12.
In recent weeks, coal has been piled outside of buildings in the far northeast where many heating systems are switched on centrally at the start of November. However, Beijing does not turn its heating on until the end of the month, raising fears smog could get worse before it gets better in the capital.
Last year, China's carbon dioxide emissions declined for the first time in more than a decade although observers noted a stagnating economy helped.
Still the world's biggest coal user and emitter of carbon dioxide, China aims to use 15 percent non-fossil fuel energy by 2020, around the time coal usage is due to peak.
China's air pollution woes come weeks before the U.N. climate change conference starts in Paris on Nov. 30, when countries will try to agree on a landmark, legally binding deal on emissions.
Pope Francis last month told U.S. President Barack Obama that addressing emissions was a moral imperative, in his latest speech calling for global action on climate change.
Growing engagement on the issue follows the encyclical on the environment in June, when Francis warned the world was facing the repercussions of a "throwaway" consumerist culture.
"We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing — and its human costs — concern and affect us all," he said.