Heavy Smog Envelops Northern China

Authorities in Beijing, China raised the capital’s pollution alert from yellow to orange, the second highest, as pollution levels reached more than 20 times recommended limits.

Despite past government promises to take on the environmental woes facing northern China, by 4 p.m. Friday, the Air Quality index in Beijing reached 470, with anything over 300 considered acute pollution. Next door, in bordering Hebei province, dangerous PM2.5 particles climbed above 500 micrograms per cubic meter – the World Health Organization’s recommended expose is 25 – resulting in the area’s yellow-to-orange warning elevation. Believed to be the most threatening air pollutant to human health, PM2.5 particles settle inside the lungs, inflicting immense bodily damage.

Shrouds of thick smog have mostly been to blame for the area’s current threatening state. For years, China has been subject to heavy air pollution caused by the enormous use of coal it uses to generate electricity for its expanding economy.Government officials initially vowed to cut coal use, declaring a “war on pollution,” but instead, continued to focus on economic growth.

The developing economy has also resulted in an increase in car ownership, thus adding on to the air pollution. “Two decades ago the majority of China’s population was still bicycles dependent,” news organization RT points out. “But in 2010 Beijing imposed a lottery system where only those who won could register for a number plate.”

On Friday, the smog was so severe in the Beijing area that 18 highways linking to other major cities like Xingtai, Shijiazhuang, and Dingzhou –also enveloped in the smog – had to be closed.

The orange alert comes at the foot of three high-profile hostings: the Tour of Beijing cycling tournament and a Brazil-Argentina football match, along with the global APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting where heads from US, Russia and Asia are set to gather. For these events, city authorities said they would place tighter limitations on vehicle-use, even barring trucks carrying waste and toxic chemicals from the roads.

Pushing for action, Greenpeace East Asia projected the message “Blue Sky Now!” on to a portion of the historic Drum Tower building.

“Beijing will make every effort to prepare for the APEC meeting and we need to control air and water pollution,” said Guo Jinlong, the city’s Chinese Communist Party chief.

Yet, many are cynical, citing previous unfulfilled promises made by officials.

“The Beijing government must do what it can,” read an editorial in the state-run China Daily newspaper. Otherwise, “the mayor’s promises will turn out to be empty words.”