We’ve been blessed with some fantastic weather in the past week but if you’re anything like me that hacking cough in the morning and chronic sinus problems are not-so-pleasant reminders of Beijing’s all-too-frequent "crazy bad" air days.
These are the days when the AQI index is so high they go off the scale (as opposed to merely "unhealthy" like it read yesterday afternoon before the rain). Given that Beijing’s air pollution is primarily attributed to car exhaust and burn-off from the factory furnaces ringing the city it’s bewildering to think what else could possibly be contributing to the muck on days when the air pollution borders on toxic.
Chinadialogue has an old post written in October 2007 by Jiang Gaoming, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Botant, that offers a partial explanation and still holds true to this day:
In northern China it is now the middle of the autumn planting season, and once again the farmers are burning off the crop stubble left after the harvest. The highways that run through the fields are covered in smoke, which seeps in through closed windows and can reduce visibility to half a kilometre. It gets worse at night; crop fires are illegal, so the farmers wait till it gets dark to avoid getting caught. However, you were unlikely to see this a decade ago.
To make matters worse, Jiang explains that farmers were doing this illegally simply because they have "nothing to do with" their surplus straw.
When Qufu held its International Confucius Culture Festival the local government cracked down on the stubble burning to avoid the embarrassment of smoke veiling the proceedings. The authorities threatened fines of 4,000 yuan (US$532) and 15 days detention for farmers caught flouting the ban. But even that failed to stop the practice. Local farmers ended up playing a 24-hour game of cat and mouse with the authorities, waiting until the police had ceased their patrols to start burning the crop stubble.
Unfortunately the problem has not been solved. Just this past week Nanjing, Wuhan and part of Jiangsu and Anhui provinces experienced this very calamity and authorities have been having a difficult time enforcing burning bans and apprehending culprits. There were some news items online this week citing government subsidies for farmers to purchase straw balers to stop them from burning straw, but it is unclear how long these measures have been in place and if they are in fact not merely a reaction to the recent pollution.
Fortunately (as far as I can tell) Beijing has not experienced anything nearly so far this year (at least thus far) but the recent announcement by the Air Quality Department under the Beijing Municipal Environment Protection Bureau that the authorities will stop counting "Blue Sky Days" (due to their own admission of a gap between their "blue sky" assessments and public perception) could not have come at a more inopportune moment.
Judging from the blue skies we’ve experienced in recent weeks, authorities may have already begun a more effective process of controlling factory emissions (and praying to the wind gods). Hopefully these controls will extend to crop burning – or at the very least, it would be a relief to think that this round of media attention will spur local officials to keep a closer watch on crop burners in and around Beijing come autumn.
But if and when the capital is once again shrouded in a toxic, choking haze that leaves you gasping for breath – at least you’ll know what’s causing it and perhaps will feel more compelled to invest in one of these (or perhaps, this).