China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Beijing's pollution not just an 'official' problem

By Emma Moore (
Updated: 2006-05-22 09:10
It doesn't take a slew of complex statistics and reports to convince Beijingers that their city has a problem with air pollution. Just stepping outside and taking a couple of deep breaths is proof enough of the severity of the pollution levels in China's capital.

Much of the city's haze is caused by dust whipped up from construction sites and the Gobi Desert. But the real health dangers come from toxic vehicle emissions and that¡¯s something all Beijing residents need to take responsibility for.

Satellite images taken by the European Space Agency in 2005 show Beijing and the surrounding north-east China region has the world's worst nitrogen dioxide pollution. This noxious heavy gas can cause potentially deadly lung damage and respiratory problems. Combined with air particles, it often blankets the city in a brownish pall. Looking down on this murky smog from my office window is enough to make me want to hold my breath all day.

Once internationally famous as the city of bicycles, Beijing currently has over 2.6 million motor vehicles with a further 1,000 plus hitting the streets daily. It seems like everyone in the city now aspires to own a car. And why shouldn't the liberals might argue. But the thought of all the adults among Beijing's ever-growing 15 million plus population driving a car each is mind-boggling. Already the city¡¯s roads are clearly overcrowded and at rush hour, the city seems to be choking to death in some traffic hotspots. The clamor of drivers honking their horns impatiently, worn brakes screeching, engines revving and bicycle bells ringing incessantly is enough to make even the most serene person¡¯s blood pressure lurch.

City authorities are now taking decisive steps to prevent the looming environmental and public health disaster. The stunted two-line subway network is being rapidly expanded, highway toll systems are being upgraded and extended, vehicle emission standards are being more rigorously enforced and efforts are being made to limit the number of taxis prowling the city streets. It sometimes seems that too little is being done almost too late; and there remains much more to be done, but the right noises are being made in planning offices.

Now it's up to Beijingers to do their part to save themselves and their city.

Beijing already promotes International Car Free Day on September 22, but one day of reduced exhaust emissions out of every 365 is a mere token gesture in the face of China's skyrocketing pollution levels.

Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau, is setting a good example by welcoming a new 'blue skies' campaign. The campaign aims to reduce private vehicle use and encourage walking by persuading drivers to give up their cars for one day a month. To date, 200,000 vehicle owners from 79 car clubs have voiced their support for the movement. That's a good start, but commitment is needed from many more drivers if any real impact is to be made.

What I don't understand is that if drivers are able to walk to work one day a month, what prevents them from walking one day a week or even every single day? Buying a car may be expensive but it doesn't cost owners their legs! The trouble with car ownership is that it inevitably leads to laziness.

One of the sponsors of the 'blue skies' campaign, Wu Zhonghua, chairman of Beijing's Sohu Car Club sums up the situation succinctly:"We cannot control the weather, but we can control our wheels." We can also control our natural inclination to avoid physical effort.

Walking or riding a bicycle around town everyday is often looked down on as lower class and unsophisticated by ambitious city types. But in most developed countries many people now choose to walk or cycle whenever possible and save their cars for trips too long to walk. The benefits of not driving walkable distances are numerous and far-reaching. On a personal level, regular exercise helps with weight loss and control; improves fitness; reduces stress, and of course saves money on petrol and parking. Leaving your car at home helps minimize air and noise pollution, traffic accidents, oil consumption, road repairs and beautifies cities.

The Beijing Environment Protection Bureau reported 17 days of level four or five (severe) air pollution in the first quarter of 2006, compared to only nine days in all of 2005, and just 60 blue-sky days - 16 less than the same period last year. It seems that things are getting worse before they will get better.

I hope Beijingers will bear this in mind and remember the advantages of walking next time they're hunting for their car keys.

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