Red Alert, life inside the Beijing smog

Beijing residents carry on with life as government signals serious anti-pollution efforts in issuing Red Alert for smog.

Skyline - November - By Zou Yi
Zou Yi's Beijing skyline photos show the variation in pollution levels on a daily basis. There were only 4 pollution free days in November. [Zou Yi]

Beijing, China – It is Tuesday morning, 8am in the financial centre. Streets ordinarily choked with traffic are strangely quiet. The usual crowds of office workers congregating outside building entrances are missing, and the sidewalks are mostly empty – empty save for a few pedestrians briskly walking through the street, most with faces half-covered in masks.

It is Day One of the capital’s first issued “Red Alert”, but unlike the phrase suggests, this isn’t a city under siege. This is a city under smog – dangerous levels of it.

The highest-level air pollution warning was given the evening before, triggered by three forecasted days of severe haze.

Residents received text messages from Beijing’s municipal government warning them that all schools would be closed, construction halted and car restrictions put in place.

“Stay indoors,” was the instruction, and most happily obliged.

With an air quality index (AQI) of over 250, more than twenty times the level recommended by the World Health Organization, the city was shrouded in thick sepia-toned air.

From street level the tops of skyscrapers seemed to disappear, blurring into the dull grey sky. In some areas visibility reportedly dropped to only 200 metres. But while this was the capital’s first declared Red Alert, it wasn’t the worst smog it had seen. Just days before the AQI levels soared to more than 1,000, and the city had seemed to disappear entirely.

Air pollution

For Margaret Zhu, a mother of two, Beijing’s severe smog is nothing new. “It’s like gambling, a lucky draw. Every day you wake up and look up at the sky and see how it goes. We’re powerless,” she says.

The public relations professional had been getting ready to put the kids to bed on Monday evening when she received the first Red Alert text message.

“It was so sudden and we didn’t have time to plan anything,” she says.

Like thousands of other parents in the city, she was told that the schools of her 10-year-old son Yoyo and daughter Ann, aged three, would not be open the next day, and alternative last-minute arrangements would need to be made. On the first of the three days, Zhu took time off work and scrambled to organise a day-trip out of the city for the second.

“With the smog, it’s difficult to keep kids at home and not allow them to play outside,” says Zhu.

“So we invited some of my son’s friends to come with us to a forested area in the countryside where the air is much better. Other families I know packed up and drove even further to the mountains for the entire week to escape the pollution.”

The Zhu family are worried about their children's future in China [Zhu family photo]
The Zhu family are worried about their children’s future in China [Zhu family photo]

Beijing’s Red Alert was used twice in December, with the second announcement taking place over a weekend, and to Zhu’s relief, at a time when her children’s school had already broken for the end of the year.

Although she says the Red Alert is a good idea, Zhu believes it is overly disruptive to force all schools to cancel classes for three consecutive days. “It would have been better to make a decision to cancel classes on a day by day basis. It harms society when schools don’t run. Also does it do any good? I don’t think so,” says Zhu.

When Zhu first arrived in Beijing from the country’s south 20 years ago, she said that the main problem was the city’s notorious sandstorms. These have since stopped, but Zhu says she has noticed the air pollution intensifying over the past three years.

“The smog has become so terrible. We used to hate the sandstorms and hate the wind because it was so cold and made us suffer. Now, because of the smog, we love the wind because only the wind that can save us by sweeping it away,” says Zhu.

When AQI levels broke records at the end of November, she and her husband were forced to reconsider her children’s future in Beijing. “We’re thinking of sending them to boarding school in another country,” said Zhu. “Maybe America or Europe.”

Public health and lung damage

According to Greenpeace, China’s air pollution puts public health at risk every day because of the presence of minuscule particles known as PM2.5. These are more prone to carrying a variety of toxic heavy metals, acid oxides, organic pollutants, and other chemicals, as well as micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses in the air.

When inhaled the particles can enter the bloodstream and contribute to a number of cardiovascular and respiratory problems, as well increasing the risk of cancer.

In a report about the health impact of particulate matter the World Health Organisation states: “There is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.” And those with pre-existing lung or heart problems, as well as children and the elderly, are particularly vulnerable.

Bec Herz, a Beijing-based Australian expat, is all too aware of the risks.

Only a month away from giving birth to her first child, she and her husband have agreed to take every possible precaution to protect her health and that of her unborn child.

“We only go out when it’s absolutely necessary and if I do I always wear my mask. We’re purchasing two more purifiers for our own home and are really careful about when to open our windows,” says Herz.

The 30-year-old first moved to China in 2008, shortly after the Beijing Olympics and says at the time the air was quite clear.

“I just didn’t know how bad the pollution could get. I lived in the south of China for the first years and wasn’t exposed to the smog. I definitely feel it’s becoming increasingly worse. When we first came it wasn’t such a big issue, and I didn’t really think about it. But after getting pregnant my perspective has changed.”

Herz and her husband will remain in the capital for another two years so she can finish her degree in early childhood education. Until then they have put in place measures to help them avoid the smog, such as getting groceries and other necessities delivered to their home.

“It’s one of those things that you just have to learn to live with. It can’t stop your life.” When her baby daughter is born they have already agreed to only take her out on blue sky days, “when the air quality is similar to other big cities in the world like Sydney or LA”, says Herz.

“Anything past that we’d just stay home no matter what, at least until she’s old enough to wear a mask.”

Though Herz says she generally enjoys her life in Beijing, the smog makes it difficult to raise a family.

“There are a lot of ways around it, but I wouldn’t like it because I want my children to experience playing outdoors. Here you can’t guarantee how many good air days you’ll get.” She adds, “even the simple task of walking my dog doesn’t happen daily because I’m worried he’ll get bad lungs from the air.”

Bec Herz tries to expose herself to the pollution as little as possible to protect her unborn child [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 
Bec Herz tries to expose herself to the pollution as little as possible to protect her unborn child [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 

Air quality and emissions standards

In a recently released Greenpeace campaign video a man wakes up in his apartment, slowly turning on appliances which emit streams of smoke that he doesn’t notice. Eventually he goes to sit down in a living room completely engulfed in an ominous cloud of smoke.

The short film ends with the words: ‘Lungs see what your eyes don’t. Particulate matter causes respiratory diseases. End the age of coal.’

“Coal is responsible for 60 percent of PM2.5 in China,” says Greenpeace East Asia Climate and energy campaigner Dong Liansai.

“The air pollution is caused by a combination of industrial emissions and coal burning emissions, but the largest source is coal,” he says, adding that one third of the coal-burning sector in Beijing and the surrounding region is consumed for power.

While there are no quick fixes Dong says that the government has implemented a number of new policies to improve conditions over the long term, including a new emissions standard which took effect this year.

“Beijing and Hebei province now have stricter emission standards for the coal industry,” says Dong. “Emissions facilities will need to be upgraded to cap their emission levels and factories who cannot meet these standards will eventually be phased out.”

Beijing has already closed down three of its four coal-fired factories, and the last remaining facility is due to be shut this year.

This year also heralds the implementation a harsher environmental protection law which Dong says will measure infringements by number of days, rather than per incident.

“Previously penalties were calculated per action. So if there’s a factory which releases an illegal emission for a single time for over 10 days, according to the old law it would be counted as just one infringement and lead to one penalty. But now the penalty is counted by days. So even if it’s only one action, the penalty will be times 10, much bigger. The cost of disobeying will increase.”

In spite of continuing crippling bouts of severe smog over the winter, Dong says air quality is slowly improving, pointing to Greenpeace findings that air quality improved by 10 percent in the first nine months of 2015.

He believes increased awareness about the health dangers associated with smog, as well as intensified public debate are partly to thank for new measures, including the recent use of the Red Alert.

“There were previous clear instances where the Red Alert could have been used and it wasn’t, so this is a positive step. It’s a sign that the city government are changing their attitude and deciding to confront the problem of air pollution.”

Dong Liansi says the Red Alert is a sign that the city government is changing attitudes and deciding to confront the problem of air pollution [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 
Dong Liansi says the Red Alert is a sign that the city government is changing attitudes and deciding to confront the problem of air pollution [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 

Pollution images

The problem of air pollution is something Zou Yi confronts every day.

The investment and development manager has spent each morning for the past two years taking photos of Beijing’s skyline and posting the results on social media.

The staggering contrast between good and bad air quality days have shocked millions living both inside and outside of China. “When I first started I didn’t have a specific purpose. It was January 2013 and we were experiencing terrible levels of smog. I was spending most of my time indoors and didn’t have much to do, so I decided to get out my camera,” says Zou.

Each morning at around 7:30am Zou Yi takes a photograph of the view from his window in downtown Beijing, posting the raw image alongside the day’s corresponding AQI.

On good air quality days the sky is bright blue and clear.

On bad air days, images show hardly anything at all, or are tinted grey or yellow.

In addition to his daily posts, he combines all photos taken at the end of each month into one grid and posts the result. He says his latest collage, taken at the end of November, was viewed and shared more than 100 million times.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Zou Yi.

“Perhaps it was because it was the same week as the Climate Summit in Paris and all those living in Beijing were suffering from extreme levels of haze.”

Looking at it, it’s not hard to see why this post attracted so much attention.  From a total of 30 photos, the grid depressingly contains only five sunny days. “When you live in Beijing you try not to notice how bad it is,” says Zou.

“But when these pictures are side-by-side it really sinks in. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Zou Yi hopes that the project, officially called “Beijing Air Now”, will encourage others to ask questions, observe their environment and take personal action.

In late 2013, the avid hiker started organising weekly volunteer missions to clean up left over rubbish in unmaintained sections of the Great Wall, and he hasn’t driven either of his two cars for two years, preferring to walk or take the subway.

“My family and friends thought I was crazy, but I made that decision. I’m not saying people should look at me and stop driving,” he says. “I’m just saying that people have choices. You can do something and help in some small way.”

Zou Yi's photos of pollution in Beijing have stunned many on the internet  [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 
Zou Yi’s photos of pollution in Beijing have stunned many on the internet  [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera] 

Air purifier

“Congratulations! You’ve Just Taken the First Step To Enhancing YOUR Vitality!” reads the landing page of the website of Vitality Air.

The Canadian company purportedly sells bottles of superior oxygen sourced from the Rocky Mountains, and have told media outlets around the world that they’ve been struggling to meet demand in China.

Priced between $12 to $25 a bottle, the product is marketed as “the next bottled water” and “your solution to pollution!”.

But while Vitality Air has made international headlines in recent weeks, the product is in reality viewed more as a novelty in China.

Those living in Beijing who are seriously concerned about the effect of air pollution are more likely to buy air-filtration masks, home air-purifiers, and increasingly, devices known as “laser eggs”. The portable dome-shaped machine monitors AQI levels in the immediate vicinity using simple laser technology.

“In the past you had to look at a smartphone app to know what the pollution levels were. And an app is telling is what somewhere maybe 25 kilometres away from you said an hour ago. It is not right here right now,” says Liam Bates, founder of the company producing the pollution monitoring device, Origins Technology.

On the second day of Beijing’s first Red Alert, Bates is juggling tightly scheduled drop-offs of new supplies of the laser egg. He originally founded the air-quality focused tech company together with his wife Jessica Lam after she developed asthma symptoms shortly after they moved to Beijing.

Starting off selling air purifiers, the couple eventually realised that they could produce portable pollution monitors at an affordable cost.

“When we first came out with this product a lot of people were like: ‘This is useless because it can’t clean your air, it only tells you there’s a problem and we all know there’s a problem’. But a lot of people who told me this at first have since changed their attitude,” says Bates.

Today, it’s not uncommon to find the device on shelves in homes, offices and restaurants. Bates says sales suddenly spiked after the Red Alert announcement, particularly among the local Chinese community.

“Expats in China were always largely aware of how bad the air is, but among the local community there was this misconception that ‘it’s not that bad’, and air purifiers and masks were seen as ‘things for fancy people.’

“Now, if you simply look at the number of people wearing masks today versus two weeks ago, there’s a big difference. People who you would never think would wear a mask are wearing one.”

The entrepreneur applauds recent government initiatives to invest in renewable energy and improve air quality. “China is doing a lot and going faster then any Western nation would or could. And when China sets its mind to something it gets it done.”

But, he added: “The pollution is very harmful to health and there’s a direct correlation to exposure to these levels of PM2.5 and lifespan. So no matter how fast China goes, it’s never going to be fast enough.”

Liam Bates says demand for his pollution-reading devices has increased since the Red Alert [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera]
Liam Bates says demand for his pollution-reading devices has increased since the Red Alert [Aaron Berkovich/Al Jazeera]

The future of China’s pollution

In the days leading up to the end-of-year festive season, social media feeds around the world are typically filled with happy snaps of people on vacation, enjoying holiday feasts and partying.

But for those living in Beijing, posts made towards the end of 2015 weren’t so jolly.

“I’m dreaming of a smog-free Christmas,” quipped one Beijing-based expat journalist in a caption above a photo of a busy highway barely visible under a veil of 500 AQI air pollution.

Similar photos showing haze-obscured scenes of the city are commonplace, often accompanied by comments which use standard mask-wearing emoticons.

When the pollution skyrocketed at the end of November bloggers made fun of the situation by using photo-editing applications to draw comic outlines of iconic buildings that had suddenly disappeared from view.

Groups of senior citizens who continued to square dance in smoggy parks were filmed and compared with slow-moving zombies from old misty horror films.

Even businesses took a light-hearted approach to the pollution, with bars across the city offering special “airpocalypse happy hours” to lure back punters taking refuge from the haze at home.

Aside from using humour, serious steps are increasingly being taken to cope with a grim situation now considered routine.

Many company buildings and offices regularly distribute air masks to employees, installing air-filtration systems so that staff may work in purified peace.

Schools have done the same, with a handful even building “pollution stadiums”, to allow children to play sports unhindered by unsafe AQI. International school Dulwich College was the first to build an air-pollution dome in 2011, and construction was completed on a second this year, allowing “the school to run activities without being subject to the vagaries of Beijing’s weather”, says principal David Mansfield.

Many schools are providing indoor play areas for children to use when unable to go outside [Dulwich College]
Many schools are providing indoor play areas for children to use when unable to go outside [Dulwich College]

“People who live outside China can’t imagine what we experience,” says Zou Yi describing the normality of Beijing smog.

“When I have visitors, they ask me how on earth I can cope with this awful pollution. But when you’ve been living here for such a long time, you’re not afraid of it any more.”

Although many in the capital have questioned the economic and social costs of issuing a city-wide Red Alert, most agree that the advanced warning allows residents to better prepare for dangerous levels of pollution.

“The first step in making changes is in acknowledging that there is a problem,” says Liam Bates. “And previously people didn’t acknowledge the problem, whether it was the government or people who just thought it wasn’t a big deal.”

Greenpeace’s Dong Liansai is optimistic about China’s determination to better protect public health, noting that in addition to the capital’s use of its highest-level alert, there are now nationwide air-monitoring and disclosure systems.

“Air quality is already monitored in more than 300 cities across China,” he says. “There’s also a national official website, a platform for data disclosure.”

But Greenpeace says there is still much more that can be done, and are calling for the government to introduce a national coal consumption cap in the upcoming 2016-2020 Five Year Plan.

But for Margaret Zhu and her young family it may all be too little too late.

“I’m thinking about the future and I haven’t made a decision,” she sighs. “I don’t want to separate my children from my home, but unless I really see proof that the air is getting better, I’ll do what I have to do.”

Follow Katrina Yu on Twitter:  @Katmyu

Source: Al Jazeera