In recent days, Beijing has been inundated by a wave of pollution. The levels of air pollution went up to figures that were previously unimaginable, the worst ever recorded. According to the air monitor at the US Embassy in Beijing, the concentration of particulates of 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) reached 755 over the weekend, while the previous records never passed 500.

A capture of the levels of pollution on Sunday in Beijing. Source: Beijing Air.

The warning issued by the city authorities is understandable, considering that the World Health Organization recommends that the daily level stays around 20 to prevent people from developing asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Citizens were worried and many decided to cancel their restaurant dinners and other weekend plans. The brave ones in the street were wearing masks, causing most shops to run out of stock. As of Sunday, “the smoggy weather” got more than 7.68 million mentions on Weibo, the Chinese version of the microblog site Twitter.

For most of the weekend, life in the Chinese capital was seen through a grey layer, as if being seen through a camera filter. It was dark through the first hours of the afternoon. In fact, the sun tried its best to make its way out but it did win not the battle. And it was hard to see even the other side of the street, let alone the buildings on the next block.

One of the possible reasons why the pollution is so terrible these days is the fact that Beijing is seeing one of the most severely cold winters. This results in an increase in the burning of coal in Beijing in order to heat the houses and offices of a city of around 20 million inhabitants.

Beijing Pollution

The sun tried its best to make its way out but it did win not the battle. Pic: Rita Alvarez Tudela.

The amount of coal burned in China to produce electricity is more than the U.S., Europe and Japan combined, according to statistics. For some local people, the importance of having a warm home is crucial. They prefer to wear shorts inside rather than layering sweaters. While outside their windows, the temperature is around -5ºC to -10ºC degrees.

Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace are calling for a cap on cap regional coal consumption as well as taking ambitious steps to set up specific air quality improvement plans, including detailed PM 2.5 pollution reduction timelines.

The government knows that a population suffering in the cold could mean protests and unhappiness. In some cases, the result is thousands of chimneys sending lots of polluted particles to the air without a strict control.

Even though the heating season in Beijing goes from November 15 to March 15, the cold temperatures changed things last year. The authorities adjusted the timing this winter and started it early on November 1. It has turned out to be the coldest winter China has seen for 28 years.

Another important issue to take into account is the amount of cars that circulate daily in the capital. These cars not only produce huge traffic jams but also make the pollution problem bigger and bigger. According to the latest official data, the number of cars registered in the Chinese capital passed 5.2 million.

The current poor air conditions are likely to last at least until Wednesday. For this reason the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau ordered to a halt outdoor sports activities for primary and middle schools. In addition, some construction sites were suspended and businesses were forced to reduce their emissions.

Record Beijing air pollution forces warning from China officials to keep kids indoors. PIC: Rita Alvarez Tudela

“Beijing implemented an emergency response plan for hazardous pollution for the first time on Sunday,” said Yu Jianhua, director of the air quality department under the municipal environmental protection bureau.

Yu refers to a plan approved last year that calls for construction sites to limit construction activity that creates large amounts of dust, additionally asking industrial enterprises to reduce emissions and has a goal of reducing municipal traffic by 30 percent compared to normal days.

In total, an estimated 8,572 premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 due to high levels of PM2.5 pollution, says a joint study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University’s School of Public Health published just last December.