Beijing smog prompts unusual transparency

One of Beijing’s record rounds of air pollution kept schoolchildren indoors and sent coughing residents to hospitals, but this time something was different about the murky haze: the government’s transparency in talking about it.

While welcomed by residents and environmentalists, Beijing’s new openness about smog also put more pressure on the government to address underlying causes, including a lag in efforts to expand Western-style emissions limits to all of the vehicles in Beijing’s notoriously thick traffic.

Even state-run media gave the smog remarkably critical and prominent play. “More suffocating than the haze is the weakness in response,” read the headline of a front-page commentary by the Communist Party-run China Youth Daily.

Government officials — who have played down past periods of heavy smog — held news conferences and posted messages on microblogs discussing the pollution.

The wave of pollution peaked on Saturday with off-the-charts levels that shrouded Beijing’s skyscrapers in thick grey haze. Expected to last through to today, it was the severest smog since the government began releasing figures on PM2.5 particles — among the worst pollutants — early last year after a public outcry.

According to government, levels of PM2.5 particles were above 700 micrograms per cubic meter on Saturday, and declined yesterday to levels around 350 micrograms — but still way above the World Health Organisation’s safety levels of 25.

A growing Chinese middle class has become increasingly vocal about the quality of the environment, and the public demands for more air quality information were prompted in part by a Twitter feed from the US Embassy that gave hourly PM2.5 readings from the building’s roof. The Chinese government now issues hourly air quality updates online for more than 70 cities.

Air pollution is a major problem in China due to the country’s rapid pace of industrialisation, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in vehicle ownership and disregard for environmental laws, with development often taking priority over health.

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