Breathing in Beijing: An Emergency Anti-Smog Plan, Rainmaking, and New Words for Pollution

beijing air smog quality emergency measures olympics image

An Environmental Protection Bureau van checks air quality near the Water Cube
After over a week of mixed pollution, Beijing today outlined emergency measures for fighting smog during the Olympics, potentially expanding what is already the world's grandest pollution experiment. Under "extremely unfavorable weather conditions," like hot, humid air without the winds needed to disperse pollution, the government may enact further restrictions on factories and cars in Beijing and the nearby city of Tianjin as well as surrounding Hebei Province -- in total a region of more than 91 million people.

Instead of removing 90 percent of cars, as proposed earlier this week -- or erecting an enormous fan, as has not yet been publically proposed -- the rules would maintain the existing alternate-day car restrictions (on even-numbered days, only license plates ending in an even number are allowed to drive) with a further 10 percent reduction: if your license plate number ends in the current date, you'll need to grab a bike, a bus, a Segway, or ride the city's newly expanded network.

While the odd-even restriction may be too harsh for most people to swallow on a regular basis, the current date rule sounds like a more practical long-term idea. But are cars really to blame? It is generally thought that vehicles -- especially the older, high emission trucks currently banned from city roads -- contribute 40 percent of the city's smog.

But as Deborah Seligsohn argues at HuffPo, the cars and trucks aren't the only problem. There's also the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from small, sometimes illegal factories operating on the city's outskirts.

There is no question that smart transportation planning would help China avoid vehicle-caused smog and global warming in the future. But for the here and now, the real challenges are in industry, and the real efforts need to be in strengthening local enforcement of existing pollution and energy efficiency standards and with developing new multipollutant standards that address issues like VOCs.

As always, much easier said than done.

For now, Beijing officials are aiming for the low-hanging fruit; that may not be the biggest polluters, just the ones easiest to grab: cars and state-run factories.

The government is also taking aim at another familiar target: the clouds.

The past few days have seen pollution levels drop dramatically from earlier in the week, due largely to heavy evening rainfalls. It's unknown how much cloudseeding the government has been doing these days, but as a friend speculated after seeing a police motorcade speed along the second ring road last night just after a thunderstorm, "the officials were coming back from Chongping, where they had probably just satisfied themselves by shooting the hell out of the sky."

Though it is still unclear to what extent the government can control the weather around Beijing (or its factories for that matter), the rain is certainly helping disperse pollution. Today and yesterday were much better than usual, with PM10 readings down around WHO standards of 50 micrograms/m3.

Meanwhile, a Beijing environmental official meanwhile continued to play with terminology.

"Pictures cannot reflect reality," said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing municipal bureau of environmental protection, perhaps in response to our recent post. "Clouds and haze are not pollution. This kind of weather is a natural phenomenon. It has nothing to do with pollution." But as BeijingAirBlog points out, July 27 saw only 63% of humidity in the air but a PM10 of 269 microgram/m3.

While there is a difference between weather and pollution, and while pictures do not always reflect reality, Du might have consulted his agency's own numbers before trying to throw up a smog screen.

Also on TH:
It's Air Experiment Failing, Beijing Considers Emergency Measures
IOC Should Have Done More, Says Greenpeace
AP: Beijing Pollution Better, More Measures Considered
Beijing EPB: Beijing Olympic Daily Air Quality Readings
Professor Ken Rahn's Beijing pollution PowerPoint
Ministry of Environmental Protection: Olympic Contingency Measures

Photo: Andy Wong/AP

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