China starts 2017 engulfed in smog, issues pollution alerts

Heavy smog that blanketed parts of China over the weekend cleared somewhat on Monday, with flights in Beijing back to normal, but it was likely only to be a brief respite with more choking smog expected to return to the wintry north within 24 hours.

With air particulate levels well above WHO recommended levels, flights cancelled, highways closed

People wearing masks cycle past Tiananmen Gate during the smog after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution in Beijing. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Heavy smog that blanketed parts of China over the weekend cleared somewhat on Monday, with flights in Beijing back to normal, but it was likely only to be a brief respite with more choking smog expected to return to the wintry north within 24 hours.

Weather forecasts on Monday showed the smog would return to Beijing and nearby Tianjin city on Tuesday. It was expected to persist until Thursday in Hebei, the heavily industrialized province that surrounds the capital, and Henan and Shandong provinces, as the region battles freezing temperatures.

Severe pollution is forecast to persist in the region for three to seven days, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Authorities have been issuing smog alerts across the north since mid-December, prompting orders for hundreds of factories to scale back production or close outright and for restrictions on motorists to cut emissions.

Pollution alerts are common in northern China, especially during winter when energy demand, much of it met by coal, soars.

Electrical generating plants burn coal and much of the heavy industry, including steel-making, is concentrated in northern provinces.

Smog above WHO recommended levels

A pollution index that measures the average concentration of small breathable particles, known as PM2.5, dropped to just over 100 micrograms per cubic metre in Beijing early on Monday from more than 500 on Sunday night. The safe recommended level of PM2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic metre, according to the World Health Organization.

Smog billows from chimneys and cooling towers of a steel plant during hazy weather in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. China's middle class is becoming less tolerant of pollution. (Reuters)

A customer service staff member at the Beijing Capital International Airport said flights were returning to normal on Monday after smog on Sunday caused hundreds of flights to be cancelled. 

On Monday, the Beijing government maintained its orange alert for heavy pollution and a ban on heavy-duty construction trucks from using the roads.

An orange alert is the second-highest level in a four-tier pollution warning system adopted by Beijing when China, worried that its heavy industrial past was tarnishing its global reputation and holding back development, declared a "war on pollution" in 2014.

Pressure to tackle pollution

Despite that declaration, public anger is mounting about pollution and what many Chinese see as government talk, but little action, to end it. That anger has occasionally spilled over into protests.

China's educated middle-class is increasingly intolerant of the bad air, which some blame on lack of enforcement by government. 

There is also pressure on China to move generation away from coal to meet its climate change commitments

Late on Sunday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said 62 northern cities had issued yellow, orange or red alerts.

Some highways to Beijing and Tianjin were re-opened as motorists headed home at the end of the long weekend, state television reported later on Monday. But 20 highways remained closed in Shandon province, as heavy smog persisted.

State television also reported that some factories in Hebei province's heavy industry hub of Tangshan, including a coal-fired power plant of Datang Power International, and several steel mills, were found to be violating the curb on operations.

The latest bout of air pollution began on Friday. China has struggled to tackle the problem effectively after decades of breakneck economic growth, much of it based on heavy industry and the coal-fired power sector.