According to the Real Time Air Quality Index, a score of 150-200 is unhealthy, and "Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects." A score of 201-300 is very unhealthy, "Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected." Over 300: "Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects."
It hit 271 on Sunday. On Saturday morning when I took these photos, you could barely see across Tiananmen Square. It made my eyes water and my throat sore. Much of it is from seriously damaging particulates known as PM2.5, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, coal fired power stations and industries around Beijing are blamed. There are a lot of VOC's (volatile organic chemicals); China Daily notes that these weren't even measured until 2010.
"If we hope to see real changes to the country's air quality, coordinated control of multiple pollutants, including VOCs, is a must," Yang Jintian, head of the Atmospheric Environment Institute at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, told China Daily.
"There has been no official data on the annual VOC emission level in China. The estimated figure is 25 million metric tons," Yang said. "Our first step should be to find the exact number, before trying to keep emissions under control."
However the real source of the problem is obvious to anyone in the City: the five million cars that seem to all be on the road at once. The city is surrounded by rings of highways, and every main street has been widened to six or eight lanes. Bicycles are almost nonexistent; pedestrians cannot cross a road without having to take bridges; life is impossible without a car now. To cross a single street to get from an office to my hotel, they had to drive me as the nearest pedestrian crosswalk was half a kilometer away. But that is a tough issue for the government to deal with; instead, they are banning barbecues. This is meeting some resistance:
[A] Beijing resident said, "Comparing with car exhaust and industrial pollution, this is a very small amount of pollution. And this is part of people's lives, so I think they shouldn't be banned."
Longer term, the Beijing government has a five year plan to restrict the number of cars and cut coal consumption. According to China News:
The plan is the toughest and most comprehensive in tackling air pollution since 1998. It notably aims to reduce PM 2.5 particle density by at least 25 percent by 2017. The city has vowed to restrict the total number of vehicles to 6 million by 2017 by allowing fewer car registrations, starting next year.
Beijing has also pledged to close companies causing pollution, toughen environmental impact assessments for new projects, push forward water and power pricing reforms to raise costs for heavy polluters, and raise or levy new fees on emissions of major pollutants.
Local environmental authority says the massive action plan will cost nearly 1 trillion yuan, or nearly 160 billion US dollars.
However the government only plans of funding a third of that; the rest is supposed to come from the companies that are causing the pollution. Good luck with that.