China issued its highest level alert for air quality today for the first time ever, enacting a spate of measures meant to last for three days in an attempt to bring down pollution levels in Beijing. The WSJ reports:
City officials restricted industrial production and urged schools to shut their doors among other three-day emergency measures enacted on Tuesday after the city issued what it calls a red alert over pollution levels. Beijing’s more-than-20 million area residents were told to wear face masks outside. Cars with odd-numbered license plates were ordered off the road, while 800 additional public buses and 50 extra subway trains were mustered to take up the slack. […]The air-quality index topped 300 by Tuesday afternoon, a level the Chinese government deems “heavily polluted.” By contrast, the air-quality index in the New York City area at the same time was 49. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said an index reading above 300 is “extremely rare” in the U.S. and generally occurs only during events such as forest fires.
Pollution in Beijing this week was not at as dangerous a level as it was last week, and the authorities’ decision to raise the warning level to its highest degree was seen as a belated acknowledgment that they had tried to underplay the severity of the situation—that lack of alert-setting invoked the ire of a citizenry that, thanks to social media platforms like Weibo, can now be more expressive.
And going forward it seems the Chinese public may have more about which to be expressive, after we learned two weeks ago that the government’s official air pollution numbers were grossly underreporting the problem. This is a problem that, in the short-term, is going to get worse before it gets better: China’s air quality is worst during the winter, when heating demand spikes. So while this may be Beijing’s first “red alert,” it doesn’t look likely to be its last.