Beijing tackles abominable air pollution with a car ban

Beijing will ban half of the city's cars on days with 'serious pollution' – but the stringent definition will leave most cars on the road.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
A man wearing a mask is seen in front of the Forbidden City from the top of Jingshan Park on a hazy day in Beijing, Friday, October 18, 2013.

As air pollution levels in Beijing hovered between “hazardous” and “very unhealthy” according to the US embassy’s monitoring device on Friday, the Beijing city government unveiled a new plan to try to get the capital’s air quality under control.

Cracking the whip, it promised that whenever the authorities foresee three consecutive days of what they call “serious” pollution they will ban half the city’s cars from the roads. 

Car exhaust fumes, along with emissions from factories and coal-fired power plants, are a major cause of the heavy pollution that is becoming a serious health hazard for Beijing residents.

But the news of a crackdown is not as good as it looks. The Beijing municipal authorities have set the bar so high that only when pollution is at its choking, eye-watering worst will they limit traffic.

What China calls “serious” pollution, measuring over 300 on the Air Quality Index, would be called “hazardous” in the United States, where citizens would be warned to “avoid all outdoor activity.” 

An AQI of 300 is 12 times higher than the level recommended as safe by the World Health Organization. The US Environmental Protection Agency says such a reading is “extremely rare” in the United States, occurring downwind of forest fires, for example.

So, only when meteorologists expect – for three days in a row – to see pollution so bad that Americans would be told to stay home will a “red alert” kick in here.

That happened only four times even last winter, when pollution reached the highest levels ever measured in Beijing, suggesting that the newly announced measures will only rarely be enforced.

When they are imposed, they will slap alternate-day driving rules on automobiles, ban trucks carrying dirt from the city’s streets, halt work at some factories and some construction sites, and – rather quaintly – prohibit the lighting of barbecues and the use of fireworks. Schools will also be closed.

The government has taken increasing measures in recent weeks to try to stave off a repeat of last winter’s “airpocalypse,” when air pollution reached hazardous levels on 20 days in January. That prompted widespread anger among the city’s residents. 

Last month the state-run news agency Xinhua said that in November Beijing will reduce the number of car license plates it issues each month, so as to keep the total number of cars on the capital’s roads below six million by the end of 2017. There were 5.2 million vehicles registered in Beijing at the end of last year, up from three million five years ago. 

At a meeting of provincial governments from the worst affected northern part of China in September, Beijing promised to cut its annual output of PM2.5, the smallest and most dangerous particulates, by 25 percent by 2017. But Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli warned at the meeting that the fight against pollution is a “long term, arduous and complicated task.” 

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