Though the Chinese capital’s air quality is actually improving, officials in Beijing declared its first red alert on Monday evening due to thick smog, which called for restricting traffic, closing down construction sites and encouraging schools to close. This was the first time a code red had been sounded since the city announced an emergency air pollution response system with colored warnings in 2013.
The red alert–the most serious warning in the system–means that authorities predict more than three straight days of severe smog, Time reported. The alert was issued to “protect public health and reduce levels of heavy air pollution,” according to an online notice from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
News of the alert came around 6:30 p.m. Monday when the state news agency Xinhua posted on Twitter: “Beijing issues first red alert for heavy smog. Odd-even car ban imposed; schools suspended.” The post also contained a picture of the barely-visible Bird’s Nest, which is a stadium that was built for the 2008 Olympics.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) December 7, 2015
If it is carried out correctly, the red alert restrictions will affect the more than 20 million people living in Beijing. According to The New York Times, from 7 a.m. Tuesday to noon on Thursday, schools will be required to close, fireworks or any outdoor grilling will be banned and cars can only drive on alternate days. Even government agencies will be required to keep 30 percent of their cars off the streets.
The situation brings into question whether authorities will strictly enforce the regulations right away, especially since the alert came at a later hour Monday and left residents scrambling to decide what to do with their children since or if they should even go to work. But, the state-run tabloid Global Times reported Sunday that Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining vowed to punish officials and agencies that fail to quickly implement a pollution emergency response plan.
The city government failed to say why they chose the time they did to make the announcement, seeing as the smog had already set in by Sunday afternoon and reached what the U.S. calls a “very unhealthy” level. The level recommends those with heart or lung disease, children or older adults to avoid the outdoors.
Many know that years of completely disregarding environmental safety has led to the deadliest air yet. But what many don’t know is that Beijing is going for their best year in more than a decade in regards to clean air, The Washington Post reported. It is hard to believe with all of the heavy smog, but the government seems to finally be taking some action.
However, their standards seem to be pretty low. Last week, the concentration of PM2.5 was at 500 micrograms per cubic meter at one point, compared to Sunday’s 224 micrograms, which is considered worse than “hazardous.” That is 20 more times than the World Health Organization recommends, but the city government’s alert level was only “orange.”
The red alert could just be the Beijing government’s response to the heavy criticism it’s received on social media, from residents and from the central government last week, both of whom questioned why the alert was only orange.
Nevertheless, Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy campaigner at Greenpeace International, said that this year is “still on track to be by far the best for air pollution on record, but the fact that these horrendous episodes can still happen shows how far there is to go to solve the problem.”
“On a positive note, it is commendable that Beijing officials initiated the alert based on forecasts before the pollution levels rose to extreme range,” added Myllyvirta. “This is something that they have found hard to do in the past.”