Beijing Celebrates U.N. Climate Talks by Issuing First-Ever Pollution Red Alert

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A visitor (centre R) takes a photo in Tiananmen Square during heavy pollution in Beijing on December 1, 2015.
Can you see me now? No? How about now?Photo: WANG ZHAO

As diplomats and dignitaries head into a second week of climate negotiations in Paris, Beijing has issued a pollution red alert for the first time ever. The air-pollution warning system has four tiers — last week, China’s capital city set its smog alert to orange, the second-highest level, for the first time in more than a year.

Last week, the smog was even worse, so the history-making alert may have been a bit belated, according to Bloomberg. The alert will last from Tuesday morning until noon on Thursday. The city recommends that schools stay closed, and that residents — even healthy ones — use public transportation instead of cars or walking. A system that only allows cars with even- or odd-numbered plates to be on the roads on alternate days is supposed to help the smog dissipate faster. Those who brave the outdoors have been warned to wear a mask. Factories — which have been blamed for the pollution, along with coal-fired power plants and car exhaust — will face short-term restrictions this week. 

Last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a speech at the opening of the U.N. climate conference. “China pledges to peak CO2 emissions by around 2030 and strive to achieve it as soon as possible … This requires strenuous efforts, but we have confidence and resolve to fulfill our commitments,” he said. “China upholds the values of friendship, justice and shared interests, and takes an active part in international cooperation on climate change.”

China is a major player in the renewable-energy market. As Bloomberg points out, the country “accounts for almost one of every three wind turbines in the world at the moment.” However, China is also very, very big; despite its investment in new wind and solar technologies, more than 60 percent of its power is still generated by coal. A new study published in Nature this year estimated that 1.4 million people die annually because of air pollution in China. 

In other words, it looks like it’s going to be a while before kids having fun at the playground won’t have to be rushed inside every once in a while because of smog alerts.