ANNIE LUNDGREN WRITES- Throngs of urbanites wearing face masks remind the world that Beijing still has not successfully dealt with its pollution problem. Its poor air quality has been under international scrutiny since the 2008 summer Olympics.
Smog masks and full-face gas masks made headlines in October when thousands of runners wore them for Beijing’s annual marathon. More recently, fashion models donned futuristic-looking versions on the runways at Beijing Fashion Week.
Air quality has gotten so bad that health experts have advised children against playing outside and private schools are investing in “clean air domes” for sports teams and other activities that are traditionally reserved for the outdoors.
But masks and artificial clean air domes are temporary fixes and reveal Beijing’s failure to effectively and permanently cut the city’s pollution. This mucky air is caused by, among other things, the country’s rapid growth in vehicle ownership, industrialization and coal-fired power plants.
Smog is created when atmospheric pollutants mix with sunlight and heat. The reaction is exacerbated by Beijing’s warm climate and lack of wind flow. Unfortunately for Beijingers, the city is located at the center of China’s highest polluting region.
In 2013, the national government raised hopes among some environmentalists by issuing an aggressive plan to cut the country’s air pollution by tightening emissions standards for coal plants and cars. The plan failed and instead produced record-breaking levels on the Air Pollution Index (PM) that year, setting off an ongoing “airpocalypse” that blankets a million square miles of the country.
Beijing’s pollution problem has been at the tipping point for the last two years. Just last month Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun admitted that the city was “unlivable.”
Air pollutants from factories and strains on infrastructure caused by a fast growing population are forcing Beijing to cut economic growth. Mayor Wang Anshun’s speech came a week before reports that the city’s pollution problem led to a decline in tourism.
After years of concealing embarrassing air pollution level data, the Chinese government stepped up its public acknowledgement of the problem. But until the problem is dealt with, face masks will be worn and domes will be built.