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December 23, 2016

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Winds clear the skies over Beijing but neighbors continue to suffer

BLUE skies returned to Beijing yesterday after winds dispelled the dangerously high levels of air pollution that had blanketed the Chinese capital for five days and sparked a pollution red alert.

However, large parts of northern China remain under choking smog.

The city’s Air Quality Index spiked to more than 400 overnight, but by morning it had dropped to about 50.

The Beijing government said it had lifted the red alert in place since last Friday evening, meaning emergency restrictions on vehicle use and construction would end.

But high readings are still being recorded in other parts of the north, including parts of the major metropolis of Tianjin which sits next to Beijing, and the province of Hebei that surrounds the capital.

Shijiazhuang remained on red alert as grey skies continued to cast a pall over the Hebei capital.

Earlier this week, the AQI in Shijiazhuang had remained above 500 for more than two days, with residents complaining that the province’s biggest city had disappeared in a sea of smog.

Since the weekend, 24 cities had issued red alerts, and the widespread pollution had disrupted flights, traffic and shipping, and closed factories and schools across the north. Flights have now resumed in Beijing, Shijiazhuang and Tianjin.

A red alert is the highest level of a four-tier warning system. They are issued when the AQI is forecast to exceed 200 for more than four days in a row, 300 for more than two days or 500 for at least 24 hours.

China launched a “war on pollution” in 2014 amid concerns its heavy industrial past was tarnishing its global reputation and holding back its development, but it has struggled to reduce pollution.

Alerts are common in the north, especially during winter when energy demand, much of it met by coal, soars.

China’s northern provinces mostly rely on the burning of hundreds of millions of tons of coal each year for heating.

Natural gas and electricity can be substitutes for coal in heating buildings in the north, Xinhua news agency reported, quoting President Xi Jinping’s remarks at a government meeting on Wednesday.

Clean energy should be used as much as possible, Xi said at the meeting, adding that the government would give enterprises a major role in the process to ensure that heating is affordable.

Northern China can expect a smoggy Christmas weekend, with air quality forecast to get worse again today before improving on Monday.


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