BEIJING: A blanket of humid, still air resulting in smog that is expected to shroud Beijing for at least three days triggered the capital’s first ever pollution “red alert” on Tuesday as many residents ignored warnings to limit their time outdoors.
By early morning, hundreds of people, including toddlers, had packed Tiananmen Square to watch the flag-raising ceremony. State radio said some people were ignoring vehicle use restrictions, which banned vehicles with odd numbers at the end of the licence plate getting on the roads, though the roads were noticeably quieter.
Environment Minister Chen Jining called a special meeting on Monday night to urge more supervision in Beijing and its surrounding cities including Tianjin as he increased the number of environmental inspection teams to 12, according to ThePaper.cn, a state-backed news website.
Although smog has always been a public health concern in Beijing, the government’s response system has come under extra scrutiny in the past week because it came under heavy criticism for not issuing a red alert during an episode of heavy smog which exceeded hazardous levels.
“This measure reflects that the government, at least, has the courage to face this problem,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese environmental NGO, referring to the red alert.
“Before, they were more or less somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the problem. Now there’s a willingness to face this problem directly.”
Chinese researchers have identified pollution as a major source of unrest around the country. Greenpeace called the red alert “a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government”.
In a statement, Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organisation’s representative in China, said the red alert “means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously”.
The Beijing City Emergency Office said “still weather, reduced cold temperatures and an increase in humidity” prompted the red alert, according to Xinhua.
A red alert means that 30 percent of vehicles will be taken off the roads, heavy vehicles will be banned, most schools will be advised to cancel classes, businesses are recommended to implement flexible working hours and all “large-scale, outdoor activities” should be stopped. The measures will be put into place until noon on Thursday.
Despite this, many residents tried to circumvent the advisory. State radio showed a picture on its official microblog of a policeman removing paper stuck to a vehicle’s licence plate to obscure its final digit.
By late afternoon, the U.S. embassy’s monitoring station recorded an air quality index of 343, which puts air pollution levels in the “hazardous” region.
While students celebrated not having to go to class, some parents complained they had been left in a difficult position.
“The kindergartens have all shut and I’ve got nobody to look after my baby. I also can’t drive today because of the restrictions,” wrote one parent on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “To hell with this red alert.”
Those who did struggle to the office posted pictures on social media of themselves wearing industrial-strength face masks.
“I feel like I’m engaged in chemical warfare,” wrote one commuter.
Still, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, without a hint of irony, praised China’s contribution to fighting climate change in a commentary on Tuesday, written to coincide with the Paris climate talks.
“People everywhere are looking forward to China’s continuous progress on the road to green development, acting as a model for the world to tackle the challenge of climate change.”