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Beijing's toxic smog was years in the making, had many sources

posted 18 Jan 2013, 04:36 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 18 Jan 2013, 04:37 ]

Experts say dangerously high levels of pollution in China's capital Beijing is a regional problem, years in the making and needs to be tackled by central and local governments.

 BEIJINGCHINA (JANUARY 18, 2013)(REUTERS) -  Beijing's recent record-breaking levels of toxic air pollution are part of a wider problem effecting much of China, experts said this week as the government looked for ways to clean up the city's air.

Last weekend, the pollution, almost constant in the capital's skies, rocketed to far above hazardous levels, reaching 755 on an index that measures particulate matter in the air with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers.

A level of 300 is considered dangerous while the World Health Organisationrecommends a daily level of no more than 20.

While the worst had cleared by early in the week, levels recorded by the U.S. embassystill hovered between what they considered 'unhealthy', 'very unhealthy' and 'hazardous' -- the highest classified level.

From the beginning of January, Beijing's Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center started officially measuring the levels of PM2.5 from 35 stations across the city.

Seventy-four other cities also started measuring the small particles.

Li Yunting, vice director of the monitoring centre, said much of the recent pollution recorded in the capital had drifted over from neighbouring areas.

"This recent spell of pollution happened over a wide region. It wasn't unique to theBeijing. Via the movement of air currents, the pollution in the Beijing area and pollution in the surrounding areas are transmitted between one another and mixed together. SoBeijing's local pollution accumulated with pollution carried over from elsewhere, intensifies the level of pollution in Beijing," she said.

Beijing impressed the world by clearing smoggy skies before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by restricting the number of cars on the roads and relocating some factories to nearby Hebei province and Tianjin municipality.

These neighbouring heavy industrial areas are responsible for much of China's consumption of dirty coal, the burning of which produces smog.

China's coal production and consumption have tripled since 2000, while steel output is expected to have reached around 720 million tonnes (653,173 million kilos) in 2012, over five times the 2000 rate.

A sustained effort to reduce dependence on heavy industry, and on the fossil fuels that sustain it, is still necessary, said Yang Fuqiang, a former government energy policy researcher and now senior adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The pollution we saw this time was widespread. Throughout the country there are 74 cities which started monitoring levels of PM2.5 levels, and of these there were 33 cities which found severe pollution, that is to say the highest classification of serious pollution. This shows us that, of all emissions, the burning of coal is the main reason for the heavy pollution across the country," he said.

China plans to cap total coal consumption at around 3.9 billion tonnes by 2015, but the government, environmental critics say, needs eventually to start cutting consumption.

At the Binhai development zone in the nearby port city of Tianjin, countless factories and power plants belch out smoke and other emissions just beside residential districts shrouded in grey haze.

Many areas like this were at least as badly effected during the recent crisis as Beijing.

The China Academy of Sciences estimates a quarter of the lethal PM2.5 emissions drifting across Beijing originate from beyond its borders.

Yang said that for the capital to improve, a co-ordinated effort between local and central governments is needed.

"First of all, each province should resolve their own problems. Because, for example, inBeijing everybody listens to the Beijing municipal government because they have administrative power and can use encouraging or forceful measures to make sure they reach air quality standards. But a regional joint effort is also needed, so we need the central government to better organise a regional joint effort," he said.

China's efforts to tackle pollution have not been successful because most local governments, including Beijing, still identify industrial growth as their main priority, Yang added.

But the recent public outcry and unusually vocal criticism from Chinese media mean that the government may have to move all the more quickly to change attititudes if it wants to avoid a repeat of the crisis.