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Beijing says pollution is down, despite 'red alerts' – or maybe because of them

Air pollution in China remains far above safe levels, but new government policies are stepping up to tackle it, spurred by concerned citizens who are taking matters into their own hands – literally. 

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    A woman wearing a mask to protect against pollution in central Beijing on December 20. Chinese environmental authorities said that the city's air quality improved in 2015. Beijing issued its first-ever 'red alerts' for pollution in December 2015.
    Andy Wong/AP
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Air pollution? In China, there's an app for that.  

Spurred by soaring levels of public concern, the Chinese government is finally giving citizens access to daily pollution updates via smartphone app, as are several private companies, as Bloomberg reported in December. The move to open up once-guarded data makes citizens partners in holding polluting companies accountable, as China promises it's getting serious about air quality.

And according to environmental officials, it's working. 

In 2013, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau's website announced "a declaration of war against PM 2.5," particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers that have been linked to breathing and heart problems. That September, the city vowed to reduce particulate matter – or PM – by 25 percent by 2017.

The average PM 2.5 concentration in 2015 was 81 micrograms per cubic meter: still seven times higher than the level recommended by the World Health Organization, and more than twice China's own goal, but 6 percent lower than 2014 and 10 percent lower than 2013.

Officials also noted that other pollutants had decreased, such as sulfur dioxide, which fell by 38 percent – a change they attributed to replacing coal-powered winter heating with natural gas facilities.

But many remained doubtful that Beijing, or China as a whole, was making significant progress. In December, Beijing announced its first-ever "red alert" between December 8 and 10, closing schools and limiting traffic, construction, and industrial work. The PM 2.5 level was predicted to stay above 200 throughout the alert; The Monitor's Beijing bureau chief, Peter Ford, reported that the actual levels were about 300.

Some said the red alerts were actually an encouraging sign, suggesting that officials were more willing to acknowledge and remedy a problem blamed for 17 percent of all deaths in China: 4,000 people per day. Some 76 percent of Chinese consider air pollution a big problem, according to a Pew survey, including 35 percent who consider it a "very big problem."

"I think before there had been some reluctance to do it because it's highly challenging to organize this and it will have a high social and economic cost," Ma Jun, a spokesperson for the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Associated Press. "There has been a changing mindset on this."

Last March, the city lowered the "red alert" threshold in an attempt to prevent more emissions.

It's also making changes to industry and accountability, from car sales to factory emissions. Beijing's government is restricting the number of cars on the roads, as will eight other cities; and China is imposing tougher fees and penalties on high-polluting companies. In Beijing, drones and satellites are being used to monitor, and one day pinpoint, polluted areas. 

Some observers say that public concern is simply too high to ignore, as are the health and environmental hazards. "China’s continuing struggle to control and reduce air pollution exemplifies the government’s fear that lifestyle issues will mutate into demands for political change," University of Michigan professor Mary Gallagher told Bloomberg

For years, the Chinese have been using masks and expensive air filters to cope with steadily gray, smoggy skies. But now that pollution measurements have been made public, with the help of smartphones and gadgets like the hand-held Laser Egg, they know exactly what they're dealing with.

But some worry that the new campaigns will only pressure companies, and officials, to cover up more. In December, eight companies were accused of fabricating their pollution reports

Observers have suggested that the "red alert" might not have happened, if the public had not lashed out over the failure to issue such a warning the week before when PM 2.5 levels neared 900, as Mr. Ford reported from Beijing:

The air was yellow and I could hardly see across the freeway outside my window – [but] the authorities did not declare a red alert. No, it was an orange alert, which meant that Beijing’s schools stayed open, unlike today.

A red alert would have been disruptive; and on the first day of the COP21 climate change talks in Paris it would have been embarrassing.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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