Environment First Look

Facing smog emergency, China closes factories, limits cars

Some cities in northern China have taken drastic measures to combat smog, including temporarily shutting down factories and restricting the number of cars allowed on roads. 

A man, wearing a mask for protection against pollution, exercises in Beijing's Ritan Park on Monday. Chinese cities are limiting the number of cars on roads and have temporarily shut down factories to cut down pollution during a national 'red alert' for smog.
Andy Wong/AP
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Parts of China are facing a smog emergency amid a national “red alert,” the highest level on the country’s four-tiered air pollution warning system that prescribes certain actions to reduce the smog.

In an effort to address the situation, some northern cities have placed limits on the number of cars allowed on the roads and temporarily shut down factories and schools. In Beijing, more than 700 companies stopped production Monday, and drivers were being restricted based on their license plates.

The alarm was triggered when particulate matter in the air measuring 2.5 microns across exceeded safe levels – by more than ten times.

China is no stranger to dealing with excessive levels of air pollution, blamed largely on its burning of coal for energy production, as well as emissions from older cars. Beyond the alerts and restrictions, the government is also taking steps to address the underlying issues.

Beijing and other urban centers are switching some power stations from coal to natural gas, considered to be a cleaner fuel, as well as introducing fleets of electric vehicles to reduce emissions produced by transportation.

There are signs of progress, too, according to the Beijing city weather bureau: Air quality in the Chinese capital was rated "good" on 107 days in the first half of the year, an increase of 19; conversely, the number of heavily polluted days fell by two, to 14.

Specific efforts thought to contribute to that shift include the shuttering of 174 factories considered heavy polluters, the retirement of tens of thousands of polluting vehicles, the introduction of 6,803 electric vehicles, and the conversion of 463 communities from coal to alternative energy.

Yet there is still much to be done, as this latest five-day alert demonstrates. Visibility is down to 1,000 meters in certain areas and, in some cities, the smog has reduced downtown office blocks to ghostly silhouettes in the middle of the day.

For some, the key is to raise awareness. Artist Liu Bolin, for example, known as “the invisible man” for his tendency to blend into the background of his photos by painting on camouflage, has decided to stream a live feed of the situation in Beijing – walking around in a bright orange vest plastered with 24 smartphones.

Describing the situation as “a disaster,” Mr. Liu told Reuters that “as an artist, to discuss it with images is what I think we should do.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.