21. January 2013 / Xiaodi Zheng

Can You See?

Finally, we see sunshine again in Beijing. During the past several days, news and photos of severe air pollution in Beijing and some other cities raised hot debate in China, also attracting the world’s attention. On Jan. 12th, the second Saturday into the year of 2013, Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau (BMEPB) announced the first highest level activation of Heavy Pollution Day Emergency Plan. On that day, the Air Quality Index (AQI) read from both the U.S. Embassy’s website and BMEPB website showed the worst pollution category with a monitored number much higher than the index chart can read. This was called “index explosion” by Chinese media and the public. A PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) peak measurement of 700 or higher was reported, which reached 35-40 times the World Health Organization’s recommendation of a safe level.

Comparison of air quality in Beijing. Photo: Xiaodi Zheng

The entire city of Beijing was covered by awful thick haze, with visibility less than 500 meters in certain parts of the city. “The longest distance in the world is (between us) when I am holding your hand but cannot see your face.” A sarcastic joke spread quickly on the internet, which was adapted from a famous Chinese movie’s line on the distance related to love. There were many versions of this “longest distance” joke and other phrase twists forwarded by thousands of Chinese microbloggers on the internet, playing with the hard-to-see effect of Beijing’s heavy smog. A Chinese way of humor helped a little to ease people’s nerves in coping with this severe air pollution. Anyhow, life has to go on. Although the government sent out alarms and recommended people to stay indoor as much as possible, especially for the elderly and children, people still need to go to work, and events and conferences were still held as scheduled. In fact, a national landscape architecture conference was being held in Beijing over that weekend. The conference theme was “Ecological Civilization, Beautiful China”.

Beijing was completly covered by brown clouds seen from space. January 14, 2013. Image Source: NASA

One thing that was positive during this pollution emergency was the government’s openness in discussing the real situation. In response to a public outcry last year, the government began releasing PM2.5 figures hourly to the general public. PM2.5 became such a hot word in China that even kids know about it. Many people installed AQI Apps on their smart phones to check air quality on the go. It is actually hard to tell if the weekend of the 12th – 13th represented the worst air pollution in Beijing or not, simply because there was no historical data to compare with. However, it surely is the “worst on record”. At least we know now how severe the situation is. To solve a problem, we have to face it first, the government and the public together.

According to official report, there were three major causes for Beijing’s thick smog. Firstly, the emission of polluted gases into the atmosphere was on a high volume level. The emission sources include coal burning, vehicle exhaust, industrial production, and construction dust. Beijing has been experiencing an extremely cold winter, and the amount of burning coal for heating is higher than previous years. Secondly, weather conditions were unfavorable with low wind velocity and increased humidity. Heavy fog prevented polluted air from diffusion. Lastly, it was a combined effect of local pollution and regional impact. The smog first started in Hebei Province, mainly to the south of Beijing. Correspondingly, the pollution level was not even within Beijing’s municipal boundary, with the city’s southwest and southeast regions in worse condition.

Some media analysis correlates this heavy smog in Beijing with the unrestricted vehicular traffic over the weekend. Since 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, there have been vehicle restriction rules in Beijing. Currently, private cars are banned one work-day a week within Beijing’s fifth ring road. Thus, traffic volume is expected to be higher over weekend than weekdays, resulting in larger vehicle exhaust volume. In another effort to reduce private car traffic in Beijing, the government has been speeding up the development of public transportation system, especially the subway system. Until 2000, there were only two subway lines in Beijing. In the past 12 years, 13 subway lines were added reaching a total operation length of 323 kilometers. But, is this enough to discourage car usage in Beijing? Not really. The scale of street blocks, the pedestrian environment, and the quality of outdoor open space have to be considered as one comprehensive system to create pedestrian-friendly urban settings and to encourage public transportation usage. In Beijing, there is still a long way to go. Under China’s rocketing urbanization context, much design attention has been put into new projects and new urban districts. There is a lack of attention and effort in evaluating and improving existing urban environment.

Current subway system in Beijing. Only two lines existed before 2000, which are the red and blue lines marked with shadow effect. Image Source: Beijing Subway. Shadow effect added by Xiaodi Zheng.

Other discussions prompted by Beijing’s heavy smog include relocating more industrial facilities outside of the city, changing energy sources, and increasing the amount of green open space. The society as a whole is finding ways to improve the air quality, which is a good start. However, it is worth pointing out that all these discussions are dealing with air pollution only, which is visible with bare eyes. What about the hard-to-see pollution, such as soil and underground water contamination associated with brownfields? Can we initiate a plan to tackle this, or do we have to wait for another emergency situation?


Xiaodi Zheng is a Registered Landscape Architect (PA, U.S.) based in Beijing, P.R.China.

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