Officials in Beijing have issued a five-day long pollution alert, taking measures to shut down schools, recommending that residents stay indoors, and keeping certain vehicles off the roads. The toxic cloud was expected to remain over the Chinese capital until Wednesday. The warning was the first since the city’s first ever ‘red alert’ last December, and went into effect at 4:20 PM on Friday. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, tweeted “smog invades Beijing”, and officials have referred to the smog cloud as a “meteorological disaster.” China’s environmental ministry reported pollution alerts in 21 0ther cities in northern and central China, including Taiyuan, Zhengzhou, Shijiazhuang, and Tianjin. Schools were set to remain close until Wednesday.

The ‘red alert’ is China’s direst level of their four-tiered warning system.
Heavy industry such as steel plants were ordered to shut down or slow operations, and older, emissions heavy vehicles were ordered to stay off the roads. While the city was reported to have “penalized” 388 people for outdoor fires and barbecues, Dong Liansai, a local climate and energy advocate who works with Greenpeace, put the blame squarely on coal-fired power plants. He cautioned that the smog contained airborne particles referred to as PM2.5, which can lead to conditions such as lung cancer, asthma, and heart disease.

Dong hailed the red alert as a positive step towards addressing the pollution problem and reducing emissions.

“But this is only a short-term measure. If you want to solve the problem of air pollution then you really need to have a long-term policy,” said Dong. “And given that coal is the No 1 source we really recommend a nationwide cap on coal consumption … that would help accelerate the transition away from coal.”

Beijing environmentalist Ma Jun praised the “huge progress” made by China in the last decade, in looking for the sources of air pollution and striving to be more transparent about informing the public about pollution. Nonetheless, studies have suggested that air pollution is still responsible for as many as one million premature deaths annually.

According to Ma, “There isn’t much research on the relation between air pollution and lung cancer in China, and even less with accessible research results. It’s sensitive. The government does not want to cause panic among the public.”

Dong cautioned residents of the area to stay indoors as much as possible, and to use air purifiers if available, recommending locals “Try to minimize your outdoor activities and, if you really need to go out, wear a proper mask to protect yourself.”

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