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January 23, 2015

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APEC blue skies mocked

THE skies of Chinese cities saw a marginal improvement last year, according to figures released by Greenpeace yesterday, but pollution remained far above national and international standards.

China’s cities are often hit by heavy pollution, blamed on coal-burning by power stations and industry, as well as vehicle emissions.

Levels of PM2.5 — airborne particulates small enough to deeply penetrate the lungs — fell year on year in 71 of the 74 cities monitored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the figures showed.

But in the most polluted city, Xingtai in north China’s Hebei Province, they still averaged 131.4 micrograms per cubic meter. In Beijing, they were 83.2 micrograms per cubic meter, and 52.2 in Shanghai.

By comparison, New York’s PM2.5 level averaged 11.2 last year and Tokyo’s was 15.8 for the fiscal year ending in March 2014, the most recent figures available.

The World Health Organization recommends a maximum average exposure of 25 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period, and 10 micrograms per cubic meter over a year.

China’s own standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter over a year.

The statistics released by Greenpeace were based on official data from the environmental protection ministry.

It makes current levels available online but does not publicly release historical data or averages.

The figures were compiled by Fresh-Ideas Studio, the operator of a popular pollution monitoring app.

The numbers showed that Xingtai enjoyed a 15.3 percent improvement, with Beijing levels falling 7.7 percent and Shanghai dropping 14 percent.

Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Warriors, saw the most dramatic decline at more than 27 percent.

But despite the drops, none of the 74 cities achieved the WHO recommended annual mark, with the least polluted, Haikou on the island of Hainan, averaging 22.4.

The environmental campaign group also released a short film on the subject by renowned director Jia Zhangke.

“Smog Journeys” tells the story of two families, one in China’s coal belt and the other in Beijing, showing how neither wealth nor education can defend against smog. It closes with a child in Beijing drawing pictures on dust-covered cars of a world he hopes to live in, complete with a radiant sun.

“The character setting is meant to point out that no one gets to be different when it comes to smog,” Jia said in an interview posted by Greenpeace on YouTube.

“One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still live their lives as usual.”

The central government has declared a “war on pollution” and made a vow to reduce the proportion of the nation’s energy that is derived from fossil fuels.

One factor contributing to the decline in parts of northern China is likely to have been the car use restrictions, factory closures and public-sector holidays imposed during a November meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing.

The result was stunning skies popularly dubbed “APEC blue” by commentators mocking their temporary nature.

Environmental activists called for further steps to reduce pollution, cutting coal use and shifting towards renewables. “Clean air is a basic necessity for healthy living,” said Yan Li, Greenpeace East Asia’s head of climate and energy.

“It’s sad if children grow up with more smog than clean air and blue skies, as depicted in Jia’s film. Bringing back clean air needs to be a priority and it requires urgent action.”



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