Millions in China Start New Year Shrouded in Toxic Smog

On the first day of 2017 in Beijing pollution climbed as high as 24 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization

Millions in China rang in the New Year shrouded in a thick blanket of toxic smog, causing road closures and flight cancellations as 24 cities issued alerts that will last through much of the week.

On the first day of 2017 in Beijing, concentrations of tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs climbed as high as 24 times levels recommended by the World Health Organization. More than 100 flights were cancelled and all intercity buses were halted at the capital’s airport.

photo of smog in BeijingPhoto by LWYang, FlickrToxic smog triggered health alterts and flight cancellations across much of northern China over the New Year holiday.

In the neighboring port city of Tianjin, more than 300 flights were cancelled while the weather forecast warned thick smog will persist until January 5. All of the city’s highways were also shut as low visibility made driving hazardous, effectively trapping residents.

Across northern China 24 cities issued red alerts on Friday and Saturday, while orange alerts persisted in 21 cities through the New Year holiday. A red alert is the highest level of a four-tier warning system introduced as part of China’s high-profile war on pollution.

Decades of economic development have made acrid air a common occurrence in nearly all major Chinese cities, with government-owned coal burning power stations and heating plants and steel manufacturing concentrated in northern provinces the main source of pollution.

Smog worsens in the winter as coal burning spikes to provide heat for millions of people. China declared a “war on pollution” in 2014, but has struggled to deliver the sweeping change many had hoped to see and government inspections routinely find pollutions flouting the law.

“Why didn’t those polluting industries take a rest for the holiday,” one commenter mused on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

“New Year’s morning in Beijing, I thought I was blind,” said another, attaching a photo of a window completely darkened with grey haze.

Similar posts appeared on Twitter.

China’s middle class is increasingly less tolerant of the deadly air, and in December tens of thousands of “smog refugees” decamped to clearer skies. Top destinations included Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and the Maldives.

That bout of smog saw 460 million people, a population greater than North America, breathing toxic air, according to Greenpeace.

As pollution covered swaths of the country on New Year’s Eve, China announced plans to increase coal output to 3.9 billion tons by 2020.

A study earlier this year found acrid air is linked to at least one million deaths a year, and contributed to a third of all fatalities in major cities, on par with smoking. Another research paper said the smog had shortened life expectancies by five and a half years in parts of China.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

The Things We Find

The wilderness holds our best kept secrets and treasures, throughout all the years of our lives.

Chris Riley

Food as a Portal—to Myself

In my blood is a culture that is inextricable from its food. How could I reclaim this after years of denying myself this birthright?

Ayu Sutriasa

The Elusive Hippos of Zimbabwe’s Hippo Valley

Amid sugarcane fields, small earth dams provide refuge for the water-dependent animals.

Cecil Dzwowa

Climate Denial is Waning on the Right. What’s Replacing it Might be Just as Scary.

The wrapping of ecological disaster with fears of rampant immigration is a narrative that has flourished in far-Right fringe movements in Europe and the US.

Oliver Milman The Guardian

“The Garden Seems to Draw People Together”

Across New York City, community leaders are turning vacant lots into food-producing havens for people and wildlife.

Zachary Schulman

Looking Closely

Examining the beauty and cruelty that abound in nature while acknowledging its inevitable extinction.

Lucille Lang Day