Cleaning up Beijing’s act

Cleaning up Beijing’s act


Buildings are seen among smog during a polluted day in Beijing, China, January 6, 2017. — ReutersTHE time-lapse video taken from a high-rise building in the heart of Beijing was dramatic. On an already misty day, a wall of fog rolled in slowly, so thick that in the end it was hardly possible to distinguish anything at all out of the window.

The problem was that the original mist was actually low-level pollution which for days on end exists as a noxious miasma that challenges the health of all in the Chinese capital. But the great bank of fog pushed in on top of it was even deadlier. Often serious breathing disorders are now common in Beijing. The use of face masks helps protect people’s lungs but it is now clear that the pollution is affecting eyes, and skin and leaving a dangerous film of dust on anything that is not protected.

Beijing’s experience is not new among great cities. London was once notorious for its yellowish “pea-souper” fogs which reduced visibility to effectively zero. The Turkish capital, Ankara, which sits surrounded by hills used to fill up with toxic smoke which when seen from a higher district such as Cankaya, looked like nothing so much as a bowl of steaming liquid.

The Turks cleaned up Ankara by banning the burning of low calorific brown coal, the country’s main energy resource. Ankara is still far from squeaky clean but its citizens are much healthier and the smogs now relatively rare.

For Beijing the challenge is altogether greater. The city council has set up an environmental police and this week said that the new force would be looking at pollution sources such as open-air barbecues and dusty roads. But this is merely scratching at the problem. The Chinese know full well how to tackle their pollution. They managed it in 2008 for the Beijing Summer Olympics when for the duration of the event they effectively shut down all local factories and power stations. But this of course is unthinkable on a permanent basis.

But radical solutions are nevertheless needed. Forcing plants to convert to less pollution fuel — low calorific coal is also a major resource in China — is only part of the answer. The capital is overrun with traffic which pumps out poisons most especially in the interminable traffic jams. Flu-gas cleaning is an expensive option for factories and power stations but has to be implemented. Compared with these two major sources of toxins, barbecues and road dust, even though it is now mixed with fallen pollutants, are the least of the problem.

But while the situation in Beijing is now appalling and mirrored in other major Chinese urban areas, the immense challenge carries its own solution. Automotive engineers are working hard on the development of electric power trains largely independent of the pioneering research in the US triggered by Tesla now being followed in Europe and Japan.

China’s urban transport networks are moving to electric-driven high technology and given the sheer number of people they are having to carry, are giving a whole new meaning to “mass transport”. And then there is the means of transport that was once ubiquitous — the bicycle. In today’s Beijing only the very poor and the very brave pedal the city’s crowded and polluted streets. But once the environment has been cleaned up, there seems every reason to believe that many Chinese will return to this healthy and hassle-free mode of transport.