China plans emergency measures to control worsening air pollution

Choking smog blamed on pursuit of economic growth

China is planning to step up its enforcement of anti-pollution measures after weeks of foul air in Beijing fuelled public discontent over the environmental and health costs of rapid economic growth.

Among a set of emergency measures to be formalised are the closing of heavily polluting factories and fining drivers whose cars are heavy polluters. The rules would be implemented during periods when pollution is particularly harmful "to protect the health of people in the city", an air pollution bill drafted by the municipal government and released on the Xinhua news agency said.

The hazardous levels of pollution that blanketed Beijing last week were mostly caused by car emissions, burning coal and the particular atmospheric conditions. But critics say the deeper underlying cause is an obsession with boosting the economy, regardless of the environmental costs.

Beijing's lung cancer rates are reported to have increased by 60 per cent in the past 10 years. The Vice-Premier, Li Keqiang, pictured left, who is expected to take over as Premier in March, said last week that tackling pollution would be a long-term process.

Heavy snowfall in Beijing brought some relief yesterday, when the US Embassy's air quality index, measuring PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres, gave a merely "unhealthy" reading at 197, down from more than 400 the day before.

PM2.5 particles are small enough to go deep into the lungs and can cause lung cancer, bronchitis and asthma. Last week there were readings off the scale – more than 500, up to 755 at some points, and possibly beyond. A level above 300 is considered "hazardous", while the World Health Organisation recommends a daily level of no more than 20.

Data released at the weekend showed that Beijing's permanent population reached 20.69 million at the end of last year, but the swelling number of permanent residents has not been matched by efforts to keep tabs on pollution.

And Beijing is nowhere near the worst – it ranked 75th worst for air quality out of 149 cities in China listed at the weekend, with the worst reading in the northern city of Harbin.

There is a belief that privileged Communist Party members and rising inequality are somehow linked to a disproportionate effect of pollution on the poor. Most residents of Beijing do not have the luxury of air purifiers at home, or iPhone apps to read air quality. This bout of pollution has been marked by unusually open coverage in the newspapers and on state TV, and the Beijing city government has invited residents to comment on the draft rules.

Wang Conghu, a professor of public management at Renmin University, thinks the measures are a positive step. "This shows the government is trying to do something, and it will be an important measure to cut pollution," he said.

A Beijing-based traffic expert, Xu Kangming, told Jinghua Times: "Whether they are actually enforced and whether real action will be taken depends on how the individual departments enforce them."