China is finally responding to the challenge posed by pollution, but there’s a long way to go

When Sir Alec Douglas-Home visited Beijing in 1972, his Chinese hosts greeted the foreign secretary with a carefully crafted joke about London pea soupers. Replying, Sir Alec rather snappishly referred to the Clean Air Act of 1956, which he said had largely ended the problem. The Great Smog of 1952, which was estimated to have killed at least 4,000 Londoners, had led to a huge effort to clean up the city’s air. Beijing then was a city of bicycles, narrow alleys and small courtyards, intersected by broad boulevards on which there was virtually no motor traffic. These days, it is periodically choked by smog as thick as any which Charles Dickens recorded, while London has little visible pollution, although its levels of some dangerous particles remain unacceptably high.

Beijing issued its most severe air pollution warning for the first time ever three weeks ago. Now a second “red alert”, which is expected to last until Tuesday, will keep some cars off the road, close factories and allow school authorities to cancel classes. Beijing pollution has actually been much worse on previous occasions, with the government issuing less severe warnings or none at all. Such inconsistencies and evasions have angered ordinary Chinese. The new red alert warnings may thus be intended as much to dissipate public mistrust as to physically dissipate the smog. The measures taken arguably make little difference to air quality. Rather they are intended to signal to citizens that the government wants to be seen to be dealing with a problem it has persistently denied in the past.

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