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Could “Airpocalypse” mark a shift in Beijing’s environmental transparency?

January 17, 2013
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A sketch of a normal weather pattern (left), and an abnormal weather pattern demonstrating inversion. (Encyclopedia of World Geography)

This post was produced for NRDC’s Fellows blog.

As has been reported in various media outlets, Beijing experienced experienced extremely high pollution this week. Experts chalk it up to a confluence of high energy consumption during the coldest period of the winter and a weather pattern in which a high warm less-dense air mass stifles a low dense (and in this case polluted) air mass from dispersing.

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These photos were taken approximately one block away from NRDC’s office in Beijing’s CBD. (NPR)

Having lived in Beijing before, I was aware of the extreme levels of pollution that living in Beijing would present when signing on to a fellowship at NRDC, but this incident far exceeded standard pollution expectations. Only in forest fires have the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) seen in Beijing this week, have recordings near this level been recorded in the United States. PSAs advised residents to avoid going outdoor if possible. Schools shut down and cancelled outdoor activities. Flights were cancelled due to low visibility, which was under 100 meters at the peak of the pollution. Hospitals witnessed spikes in respiratory afflictions.

This event, however, was discussed much more openly than many previous pollution incidents in China. On the spectrum of China’s state run media, even the most vociferous of party-aligned outlets such as the People’s Daily and the China Youth Daily (Chinese) spoke openly about the damage made by the air pollution and the need to address it. While a viral music video parodying the pollution incident has accrued over 650,000 views in the past few days.

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A diagram of how to deal with air pollution problems. (Science & Technology Trends)

Environmental transparency has preceded dramatic environmental clean up campaigns in various nations. Brown clouds of yellow sand and aerosols blocked sunlight to the point that crop productivity was reduced in post-war industrializing Japan, before a series of successful environmental campaigns attacked the causes of acid rain and other pollution atrocities. This event could mark Beijing’s transition toward greater environmental transparency. Regardless, this incident marks a key moment of openness toward environmental transparency in China.

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