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Airpocalypse Strikes Again in China's Northeast

Northeastern University's campus. Photo by a student, anonymously distributed online.

Northeastern University's campus. Photo by a student, anonymously distributed online.

Liaoning is one of China's first industrial provinces. A merger of two provinces, Liaodong and Liaoxi, as well as five municipalities, the area has been fighting an economic slump. More recently, Liaoning has also confronted what's being called an “airpocalypse” of polluted air.

Since November 5, hazardous smoke has shrouded many of Liaoning's cities, including its capital, Shenyang, where air quality set a new record low on November 8, testing 130 times above levels considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Shenyang's air registered at PM2.5 index with the maximum figure 1326 μg/m3 on November 8. PM2.5 are particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. In some districts of the city, the index was recorded as high as 1400 μg/m3. These pollutants can stay in the air for days or weeks and travel into human respiratory system, causing lung disease, emphysema, lung cancer, or premature death in individuals with existing heart or lung diseases. According to WHO's air quality guidelines, the air is considered hazardous when PM 2.5 is present in the air at 301-500 μg/m3 level.

Environmental experts suspect an increased burning of coal, straw and other materials for heat is partly causing the rising air pollution. As a result, Shenyang's Environmental Bureau has implemented its emergency response plan for the first time ever.

Screenshot: PM2.5 reading of Shenyang on November 8 from Aqistudy.cn, an air-quality monitor website.

Screenshot: PM2.5 reading of Shenyang on November 8 from Aqistudy.cn, an air-quality monitor website.

An ineffective emergency plan

The official emergency plan for heavy air pollution requires the temporary suspension of outdoor construction work and limiting the number of vehicles on the road, but a journalist from the news agency Xinhua found a construction site still running. The city's traffic department has also resisted limits on automobile traffic.

Growing increasingly annoyed, many in the public and the media are calling into question the effectiveness of the city's emergency plan.

Bi Deli, a low-carbon expert at Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the state media that some official emergency plans lack operability:

一份预案看起来面面俱到,实际上可操作性怎样?各个部门之间应该如何联动?在极端重污染情况下,如果老百姓对相关污染状况知之甚少,或还是通过口口相传来了解污染程度、防护措施,那么这样的预案就会成为一纸空文。沟通渠道不畅通,各项指令不能真正落实,这样的“梗阻”很难真正收到实效。

The plan appears to solve every potential issue, but what about its operability? What about communication between official departments? In cases of severe pollution, if residents know little about the situation and come to learn about pollution levels and protection measures through rumors, the plan becomes useless. If communication channels [between official departments] hit a bottleneck and instructions can't be distributed or implemented, the issue would not be easy to resolve.

Some high schools continued instruction, also violating the city's emergency protocol. Instead of halting all classes, one school, for instance, merely told students to stop all activities outdoors. A student at the school reposted the administration's message, expressed her disappointment on China's microblogging service Weibo:

作为沈阳的一名高二学生,我接到校讯通时候深深对教育部门表示失望。

通知:明天沈阳市天气处于橙色二级状态,按上级有关部门要求,要求我校同学明日停止一切教室外活动,注意关好门窗,并且上学、放学期间佩戴好口罩,做好一定的预防工作,学校也会停止一切室外大型活动,希望全体学生和家长周知。--28中学管理办公室管理员 11月08日

As a senior high school student in Shenyang, I was quite disappointed with the education department, after receiving this message.

Notice: Tomorrow Shenyang’s weather will be at Level 2. According to orders from the state, our students should suspend all outdoor activities, close windows, wear masks when coming to and leaving from the school, and take relevant measures to prevent injury. The school will halt all large-scale outdoor activities. We hope this notice has been delivered to all the students and teachers. [Signed] Administrator of the Managerial Office to No. 28 Middle School, November 8.

Another high school student criticized the Environment and Education Department:

沈阳雾霾严重污染,环保部门和教育局为什么不停课?这是对学生身体健康状况的忽视,也是对沈阳环保的无视,这不仅关系到学生的身体健康,也关系到老师的健康。我就搞不明白了,北京雾霾,停课;上海雾霾,停课;到我们大沈阳,停止户外活动,这是要把沈阳学生的体质搞差的节奏吗?

There's severe pollution in Shenyang, so why hasn't the Environment and Education Department halted school instruction? This neglects students’ health and safety concerns, affecting students and faculty alike. I can't understand it. When smoke like this comes to Beijing and Shanghai, they'll halt all teaching. But here in Shenyang, it's just the outdoor activities that go. Do they want to endanger students’ health?

Choking on fossil fuels

The suffocating smoke in Shenyang is a harsh reminder of the consequences of China's coal consumption, which reached 4.12 billion tons a year in 2012.

For northeastern areas of China, burning coal has long been the main way of supplying warmth. Last winter in Shenyang, almost 18 million tons of coal were fueled for supplying warmth to city residents. It was in this one season that the city managed 60 percent of its coal consumption in a year.

Making matters worse, the people of Shenyang rely on low-quality coal that contains high-sulfur and high-ash materials. Burnt by outdated heating boilers, the low-quality coal produces high emission levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other particulate pollutants that are main culprits in fatal smoke.

Early this year, the Shenyang government resolved to convert from a coal-based to power-based mode for heating in the coming future. This strategy is designed to lower the city's coal consumption per square meter from nearly 35kg to 22kg.

In China's 13th Five-Year Plan, the country's central government vowed to lower dependence on fossil energy and promote the development of clear energy. China has seen resolutions like this before, however, and a revolution in air quality still seems many years away.

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