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Beijing issues first-ever ‘red alert’ for smog

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Beijing: Authorities in Beijing have issued an air-pollution “red alert”, the first time warning levels have been raised to the highest level since an emergency response system was introduced in late 2013.

The alert will see temporary restrictions put in place from 7am on Tuesday to noon on Thursday: half the city’s cars will be forced off the roads, factories and construction sites closed and schools urged to shut.

Across the city, residents braced for the “airpocalypse” – the term that some English speakers here use for the most toxic bouts of air pollution.

But the Beijing government response has drawn further criticism and withering sarcasm from its 23 million residents, questioning why the alert level was only raised now, and not last week, when the city’s pollution was at its worst all year, shrouding the capital in an acrid soup of beige-grey smog.

The alert level remained at “orange” at the time, despite air quality readings nearing 1000 – 40 times what the World Health Organisation considers safe – in some parts of Beijing. By comparison, pollution levels remained below 300 across most of Beijing on Tuesday morning.

Many took to social media to complain about the late notice, scrambling for alternative plans to get to work without a car, or figuring out what to do with children staying home from school.

Others complained about being affected when it was lax regulation of factories and heavy industry to blame. Others still simply bitterly observed they had now “witnessed history”.

“But as PM2.5 levels soar to over 900 milligrams per cubic metre in parts of the city; if pollution that far outstrips WHO recommended safe levels isn’t enough to elicit the highest level of response, then what is?” Greenpeace campaigner Zhang Kai said in a blog post last week.

The city’s environment bureau released a statement explaining how a red alert is declared if Air Quality Index readings were predicted to exceed 200 or more for three consecutive days or longer. It said it had not done so the prior week because of a predicted change in weather conditions. But critics say previous inaction stemmed from a reluctance to enforce major disruptions to the city and its industries.

The first red-alert warning – after intense periods of pollution in the past two years – does set a precedent and signals the determination from authorities to be seen as aggressively tackling pollution.

At the international climate change talks in Paris, Chinese officials have promised to curb coal use to address both air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenpeace data suggests China’s pollution levels have dropped by an average rate of 12 per cent a year, with Beijing ahead of the national average. But 80 per cent of cities remain plagued by hazardous pollution levels. Celsius

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