Stung by criticism over the lack of effective response to the choking smog that frequently shrouds major Chinese cities, Beijing has announced some measures to contain the damage during the worst periods and protect people’s health.
In a circular issued on Nov. 6, the Ministry of Environmental Protection suggested to municipal authorities that they should close schools, cut working hours and halt outdoor activities during times of particularly heavy smog, to reduce the impact of the pollution on the public and prevent a health crisis.
At the same time, the affected cities should take measures to cut emissions, including suspending factory production and imposing traffic restrictions, the ministry said.
The initiative comes in the wake of mounting public anger and a barrage of media reports about the worsening air quality problem in many parts of China. Pollution has at times becomes so severe in some Chinese cities that motorists can barely see a few meters beyond their windshields.
Meanwhile, the air pollution and smog in major cities is prompting investors to question whether China is still a place worth putting money in, given the deteriorating quality of life in the big cities. Mainland media reported recently that an 8-year old girl who lived near a busy thoroughfare in the eastern Jiangsu province has been diagnosed with lung cancer, with doctors blaming it on the smog.
Frequent smog in big cities is a consequence of years of focus on breakneck economic growth without paying heed to the environment. Harbin city in the northeastern part of China was forced to shut down in October as the PM2.5 index, which measures particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of the city.
A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organization recommends a daily level of no more than 20.
To protect the health of school children, a wide variety of measures can come into force when the highest warning is issued, according to the latest circular from the environment ministry. They include closure of factories, restrictions on vehicle use, dust controls and a ban on outdoor barbecues. Large-scale outdoor activities should cease; kindergartens, primary and middle schools should suspend classes; and businesses and institutions should adopt flexible working hours.
The smog has impacted public health and will only get worse in winter, when coal-fired heating begins sending out large quantities of pollutants. Demand for energy rises during winter and fossil fuel is used to heat homes and offices. Increased pollution from non-industrial consumption is the main cause of smog. The new policy envisages tighter control on coal burning, polluting industries and motor vehicles while encouraging the use of natural gas.
Meanwhile, the worsening air pollution is leading to more investment in electricity-powered railways across the nation, as such public transport systems can help reduce the number of cars on the roads. Chinese cities are also speeding up construction of subway lines as the increasing number of vehicles in urban areas has been largely blamed for the smog.
Construction of six new subway lines in Beijing is expected to start by the end of this year with a total length of more than 90 km, including downtown lines and lines linking suburban areas with the downtown.
Currently, there are 17 subway lines running in Beijing with a total length of 456 km. The city’s underground network carries approximately 10 million passengers daily on work days.
Apart from big names like Beijing and Shanghai, less populated large cities, such as Nanchang, Changsha, Zhengzhou, Hefei, Nanning, Chongqing, Chengdu and Kunming, are also constructing or operating urban railway lines. A total of 35 Chinese cities across the nation are currently building more than 70 subway lines, with a total investment of 800 billion yuan (US$131.28 billion). Adding approved subway line construction plans, the spending reaches 1.5 trillion yuan.
The initiatives are certainly welcome, but it remains to be seen if they will be able to make any real difference to the urban environment and bring about an improvement in the quality of people’s lives.
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