In China's capital, they're calling it the "airpocalypse," with air pollution that's literally off the charts. The air has been classified as hazardous to human health for a fifth consecutive day, at its worst hitting pollution levels 25 times that considered safe in the U.S. The entire city is blanketed in a thick grey smog that smells of coal and stings the eyes, leading to official warnings to stay inside.
Environmentalists say it's the worst pollution since monitoring began last year, while many others believe the levels are unprecedented in Beijing's history. The smog has affected more than 30 cities in China, leading even the official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, to ask plaintively: "How can we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?"
The conditions are expected to linger for two more days.
China is choking on its own breakneck development, with thousands of new cars taking to the road every day. This year, the pollution has been exacerbated by weather patterns, combined with an unusually cold spell.
"In the winter, we have to burn more coal to get heating," says Zhou Rong of Greenpeace. She says around 50 percent of Beijing's air pollution is historically due to coal-fired power stations. "Another reason is the weather pattern makes the whole atmosphere very, very stable, and so all the air pollution accumulates down to the ground, so we are getting higher and higher air pollution."
Unusually, the pollution is getting headline treatment on local news bulletins and in the domestic media. This is in stark contrast to the situation in previous years, when pollution was rarely acknowledged, let alone reported. Since the beginning of the year, the government has been releasing hourly pollution readings for 74 Chinese cities, almost half of which are now showing severe pollution.
"There's been clarity as to the severity of the problem, there's more frequent disclosure of information, but what remains to be seen is whether more aggressive action will be taken to solve the problem," says Alex Wang, an expert of Chinese environmental law at the University of California, Berkeley, law school.
This follows intense public pressure on the issue, driven by the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing operates its own pollution monitor, releasing hourly figures by Twitter. In the past two years, citizens noticed large discrepancies between the official Chinese figures and the U.S. ones, and began to question whether the Chinese statistics had been fudged or falsified.
"In theory, with the greater transparency, that's harder to do — the falsification or cheating the data," says Alex Wang. "What will be interesting to see going forward is that now that they've become more transparent — releasing hourly data and so forth — does it actually force the regulators to take regulatory action?"
Beijing is taking emergency action: shutting down some building sites and polluting factories temporarily and taking almost a third of official cars off the road. It's also vowing to cut air pollution by 15 percent over the next three years.
But the surrounding provinces are actually stepping up coal consumption, dooming such pledges, according to Greenpeace's Zhou Rong.
"It's not going to work if Beijing city does the mitigation work alone," she says. "If the surrounding areas don't do the same work, Beijing will never get better air quality."
A study by Greenpeace and Beijing University focusing on four Chinese cities estimates the number of people dying prematurely from air pollution is close to three times that killed by traffic accidents.
Monday morning, Beijing's main children's hospital was packed to overflowing, with rows of infants hooked up to drips in the corridors outside the emergency clinic, and queues of patients waiting to see doctors. According to official media, recently this hospital has seen 9,000 patients per day, a third of them with respiratory diseases.
"Of course it's connected to the pollution," says Louise Huang, who's here with her 18-month-old son. He started getting sick the first day of the smog, even though she hasn't dared open the windows or go outside. "This must get better," she tells me. "I can't imagine how we'd live if it got worse."
"There are too many cars on the streets, too many factories," says Wang Ying, whose baby is suffering respiratory problems. When asked whether she worries about the world her child will inherit, she replies, "Of course I'm scared."
In the Chinese media, there's been some soul-searching about why the problem has been so intense. The China Daily took the country's rapid urbanization process to task, commenting in an editorial, "The air quality in big cities could have been better had more attention been paid to the density of high rises, had more trees been planted in proportion to the number of residential areas, and had the number of cars been strictly controlled."
Meanwhile, the Global Times has been pointing out China's role as the global factory and the "biggest construction site in the world."
"Seventy percent of global iron and steel, and about half of the world's cement is produced in China," it says in an editorial. "Against this backdrop, it is impossible for China to be as clean as the West."
Among local people, there are fears for the future. One song circulating online includes the lyrics, "I live in this smog, I don't want to die in this smog." This environmental crisis risks dragging down economic growth, and given growing public dissatisfaction, it could yet become a political problem for China's new leaders.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We would also like to forecast the future of China, but just now it's hard to see where that country is heading. In fact, in Beijing, it's hard to see very far at all. NPR's Louisa Lim reports on catastrophic air pollution.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Here in Beijing, they're calling it the airpocalypse. These past few days, the entire city has been blanketed in thick gray smog. It smells of coal, it makes your eyes sting and your throat feel scratchy. And at the very worst, sometimes you can hardly see to the other side of the road. If my voice sounds muffled, it's because I'm wearing a Darth Vader-style facemask to filter the air - an extreme measure because this is an extreme public health emergency.
ZHOU RONG: In the last three days, the air pollution is beyond index. It's the worst since we've had readings, starting from last year.
LIM: That's Zhou Rong from the environmental group Greenpeace. At its worst, Beijing's recent pollution has been 25 times higher than the level considered safe in the U.S. She explains why it's so bad.
ZHOU: In the winter we have to burn more coal to get heating. And another reason is it's because the weather pattern make the whole atmosphere very, very stable and all air pollution are going down and accumulate down to the ground. So we are getting higher and higher air pollution.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: For once, domestic bulletins are headlining the smog. And since the beginning of this year, hourly pollution readings are being released for more than 70 cities. One factor driving this is the U.S. embassy's own pollution monitor here, which in the past showed discrepancies between Chinese and U.S. pollution figures. That's led to more transparency, a significant development according to Alex Wang, an expert on Chinese environmental law at UC-Berkeley.
ALEX WANG: In theory with the greater transparency that's harder to do, sort of the falsification or cheating the data. What'll be really interesting to see going forward is now that they've become more transparent - they're releasing hourly data and so forth - does it actually force the regulators to actually sort of take regulatory action?
LIM: Beijing is taking emergency action, shutting some building sites and factories and taking almost a third of official cars off the road. It's also vowing to cut air pollution by 15 percent over the next three years. But the surrounding provinces are actually stepping up coal consumption, dooming such pledges, according to Greenpeace's Zhou.
ZHOU: It's not going to work if only Beijing City do the mitigation work alone. If the surrounding area don't do the same work, Beijing will never get better air quality.
LIM: I'm now in Beijing's main children's hospital and it's packed to overflowing. Here the emergency room is lined with children hooked up to drips, and upstairs the corridors are filled with patients waiting to see doctors. In the last few days this hospital has seen 9,000 patients per day - almost a third of them with respiratory diseases. The parents here are sure the pollution is to blame.
LOUISE HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Of course it's connected to the pollution, says Louise Huang. She's here with her 18-month-old son. He started getting sick the first day of the smog, even though she hasn't dared open the windows or go outside. This must get better, she tells me. I can't imagine how we'd live if it got worse.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LIM: And there are fears for the future. As this song puts it, I live in this smog. I don't want to die in this smog. China's quite literally choking on its own development. But this environmental crisis could drag down economic growth. And given growing public dissatisfaction, it could yet become a political problem for China's new leaders. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.