The National Holidays that take place in the first week of October are normally accompanied by glorious autumnal weather in Beijing.
This is partly because of the time of year and partly because, if rain threatens, the government will seed rain clouds elsewhere to prevent bad weather reaching the capital.
But this year the week marking the founding of modern China was marred by lung-choking pollution.
Tourists visiting the capital complained that they couldn’t make out the sights they had come to see. On October 6 – with the holiday coming to an end – the smog was so thick that flights were delayed and highways were closed.
For Beijingers it was an ominous sign. “The air is meant to be the best in the autumn,” wrote a local resident on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo. “We don’t expect it to get this bad until they turn on the heating next month.”
Others suggested that it could mean that the air this winter will be worse than last, when the city and much of the surrounding area was blanketed in smog. It got so bad that January was dubbed ‘air-mageddon’ and some foreigners made the decision to relocate elsewhere for the sake of their families.
Chinese leaders are aware of the severity of the problem. But sadly for residents, air pollution is not as easy to deal with as seeding rain from clouds. Instead Beijing needs to wean itself off coal – long the source of the city’s power supply – and cap the number of cars on its roads. Hence the new focus on reducing by a quarter the levels of PM 2.5 in Beijing’s air by 2017 (this is particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometres – the smallest and most harmful to humans).
That plan will be backed up with Rmb5 billion ($819.8 million) in cash rewards for Beijing, Tianjin and four surrounding provinces if they make progress towards slashing emissions, the finance ministry announced this week.
The city’s environment bureau estimates that a quarter of Beijing’s pollution originates in its neighbouring provinces.
“If they take care of their problems, Beijing will be fine with the 2017 target,” a spokesperson told Xinhua earlier this month.
But PM 2.5 matter is not Beijing’s only problem. Every spring the city is also lashed by sandstorms sweeping in from Inner Mongolia. For three decades, some of the impact of these storms has been mitigated by the so-called Great Green Wall – a thick strip of specially-planted trees that runs though part of Hebei, the province that sits between Beijing and Inner Mongolia. But according to CCTV, the forest is dying. It visited Zhangbei county where there is a concentration of the special forestry and was told by a ranger that 20% of the poplars were dying each year. The reason, CCTV reports, stems from another serious environmental problem: a lack of water. According to the broadcaster, groundwater levels in the forestry zone have been declining by almost 3 metres a year. The estimate for the entire Bashang region – where 945 square kilometres of land was planted with poplars – is that over a third of the trees are on the verge of death.
“If the forest in Zhangbei is not properly preserved, Beijing will again be put under the direct impact of sandstorms from dune areas like Otindag of Inner Mongolia,” the Global Times quoted Hu Jun, a research fellow at Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry, as saying.
“The sandstorms will make pollution control [in Beijing] more difficult, as the density of PM 10 [larger dust particles] will be increased,” Hu added. As result a replanting scheme is underway to help rejuvenate the shelterbelt. But even this is proving controversial. The Beijing Youth Daily says that scientists question its effectiveness because the non-native poplar trees are thought to be damaging local ecology, making it more fragile.
Another expert told the newspaper that – given much of the area in question receives less than 300mm of rainfall annually – it is not even suitable for large-scale afforestation.
Thanks to the paucity of water, these scientists conclude that the Great Green Wall is not a sustainable solution to Beijing’s sandstorm woes.
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