Beijing Issues First Red Alert for Air Pollution (2015)

On December 7, 2015, Beijing, China, took the historic action of issuing a red alert for air pollution, the first time it had ever done so.  The city was responding to a heavy smog event that was expected to last for several days, endangering the health of Beijing’s 23 million residents.

In 2013, China developed a four-step air smog grading system, increasing in severity from blue to yellow to orange to red.  The system uses a number of criteria for judging severity, including visibility, humidity and the concentration of small particles, known as PM 2.5.  PM 2.5 are combustion particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, small enough to enter lungs and in some cases the blood stream.  China also has a more general air-quality alert system that uses the concentration of major pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone) to create an AQI—air quality index.

The AQI on December 7 exceeded 450, prompting the first ever red alert.  Levels of PM 2.5 also sky-rocketed. The World Health Organization considers PM 205 levels lower than 10 to be acceptable; the U.S. classifies PM 2.5 levels over 200 particles as “very unhealthy” and over 300 as “hazardous.” Concentrations in Beijing on December 7 reached 253, prompting the first ever red alert.  Environmental groups have termed this and other serious air pollution events as “airpocalypses.”

A red alert requires schools to close and reduces car traffic by 50%, allowing only vehicles with even or odd license plates to drive.  The alert lasted for several days, until weather conditions changed and disbursed the pollutants.

PM 2.5 concentrations in Beijing had exceeded those on December 7 many times in the past, but the government only issued orange alerts, the level below red.  Observers suspected that this first red alert was a response to public pressure, as China and the world’s other nations were actively negotiating the Paris climate accords at the same time.  Since then, Beijing has issued several other red alerts.

Air pollution in China is a major environmental issue in the world’s largest country.  China produces more air pollution than any other nation, much of it the result of heavy industrial manufacturing and electricity generation that relies substantially on burning coal.  The U.S. embassy in Beijing monitors air pollution at the embassy.  From 2008 to 2015, the embassy recorded unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous air quality on two-thirds of all days; air quality was good on only 2% of days.

China continues to make major commitments to improving air quality.  More than half of all new electricity generation in China is based on renewable energy; China installs new renewable energy at the highest level of any country in the world.  Despite these actions, turning around the devastating air pollution in China’s main cities will take many decades.

References:

BBC News.  2015.  China pollution:  First ever red alert in effect in Beijing.  BBC News, 8 December 2015.  Available at:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-35026363.  Accessed December 6, 2017.

Phillips, Tom.  2015.  Beijing issues first pollution red alert as smog engulfs capital.  The Guardian, 7 December 2015.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/07/beijing-pollution-red-alert-smog-engulfs-capital.  Accessed December 6, 2017.

Wong, Edward.  2015.  Beijing Issues Red Alert Over Air Pollution for the First Time.  New York Times, Dec. 7, 2015.  Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/world/asia/beijing-pollution-red-alert.html.  Accessed December 6, 2017.

Yaoti, Ren.  2016.  A guide to China’s smog alert colors.  GB Times, Jan. 15, 2016.  Available at:  https://gbtimes.com/guide-chinas-smog-alert-colours.  Accessed December 6, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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