7:50am, I check the weather app. It’s just nudging one degree.
Coat? Check. Gloves? Check. Hat? Check. Mask? Check!
Schoolbag, let’s go.
Now that I am into my second winter in North West China, I like to brag that I’m perhaps a little more hardy. Wrapped tightly in thermals last year, now I can probably go without the gloves and the hat, if it’s just a quick drop off.
The mask, no.
It’s the crucial must-have accessory you can’t leave home without (during winter at least) and it’s not just any old mask. This baby provides superior protection and comes complete with its own air filter. (Bonus, it comes in many different colours and designs! Cue hashtag #StayingStylishinSmog !)
Just for the record, we did manage an entire spring/summer without so much as a whiff of bad air. No masks required.
Currently, I find myself checking the AQI (aka Air Quality Index) on the pollution app more frequently than I check the weather app. I cringe as I watch it turn purple and flick to above 200. The words “Heavily Polluted” glare at me. The little red icon beside it telling me to make sure I wear a mask and avoid outdoor activities. Just to put it into perspective, the World Health Organisation deems 25 micrograms per cubic metre to be a healthy level.
Last year we’d just arrived and I was conveniently oblivious to the smoggy haze we encountered….especially when many locals dismissed it as fog! To be fair though, the pollution at the same time last year was (literally) nothing to write home about. This year, winter has only just begun and the sunny, clear days are in short supply. There’s talk amongst those who’ve been here longer that it’s a return to earlier years when it was like a scene from the movie, The Apocalypse.
Perhaps last year, we just got lucky. (Thoughts of our impending trip to Malaysia’s clear air and sunshine currently keeping me from climbing under the covers and staying put for the duration of winter!)
There’s no hiding my head in the sand (or the covers) though, whether I want to or not, life must go on! And whether I like it or not, I’m starting to learn a lot more about ‘pollution’ – checking the map and recognising the danger zones….keeping a close eye on the PM2.5 levels. (They’re the worst apparently and when the line on your phone turns purple, it’s not pretty). They are scarily the tiniest of tiny air particles that are finer than a human hair and can slip inside your lungs.
Anything above 200 on the monitor and our international school is in lockdown, no one goes out to play. Air purifiers and humidifiers are buzzing in classrooms 24/7.
We are about to purchase our third air purifier for our apartment.
At local Chinese schools though, life continues on as per usual.
Not in Beijing today though. China’s capital has issued it’s first RED alert. Ever. (This is the highest level in the system.)
It’s effective for 53 hours and imposes the toughest restrictions on activities that may contribute to the pollution levels, including a ban on the use of half the city’s cars – which is nearly 2.5 million cars a day. (Even number plates one day, odd the next.) Heavy goods vehicles are barred from the roads with subway services extending operating hours to cope. Major companies in polluted industries must restrict or suspend production. Activities at all construction sites are banned. Schools closed.
During this time the government is assuring that all major power plants, steel and metal works, coking and cement factories are under investigation, presumably to weed out those not following regulations.
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, but says it aims to halve its emissions peak by 2030.
During last week’s climate talks in Paris, as President Xi Jinping promised to play an active role, we watched as the pollution embarrassingly topped hazardous levels, reaching 745 in some places. There was much criticism over the government’s failure to post a red alert.
In Xi’an last week it wasn’t much better. At one point, it reached an alarming 500. Friends gave up trying to get to work. A freeway lost in a cloud of pea soup…cars were colliding left, right and centre; some lost and on the wrong side of the road!
Flights were cancelled and the airport was chaos.
Miraculously a day later, the levels dropped and our phones lit up with vibrant green alerts, signalling ‘Excellent’ weather.
Admittedly, I’m still really no clearer as to what ‘exactly’ causes the pollution here in China.
Ask locals, read the papers, check websites and there are a multitude of reasons given; from low temperatures so early in the season, to the low quality coal that is burned across north China in the winter to fuel the heating. From the number of factories pumping out emissions to keep up with world demand (yes, as the world’s factory floor, the production levels are intense) to farmer’s on a harvesting mission…… and with a population in the billions rapidly growing it’s wealth status, the sheer number of cars now trawling the roads.
Trivial Fact: In 2012 Chinese consumed nearly 4 billion tons of coal, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.
Whatever the culprit, and perhaps we’ll never really know — with no wind in sight, pollutants tend to hover near ground level…last week we watched the wind blow through, miraculously dispersing the pollutants, making way for five days of crystal clear blue skies. Heaven.
We’ve also seen what happens when the government signals a crack down — coal burning slows and the factories are told to operate at the bare minimum; then like magic, blue sky reigns supreme and the air is suddenly pure.
The world watched on in amazement last September as a sunny, blue Beijing presented a show-stopping military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. They didn’t just ‘get lucky’ for months leading up to the spectacle, China enforced strict rules in a barefaced attempt to reduce pollution.
Today, on the school run, much to my relief, I spot more locals wearing masks — news of the sky rocketing levels clearly filtering through. That said, I still spy Xi’an’s senior citizens out on the exercise equipment in the local park, mask free, continuing on with their daily routine, most likely unphased by the sooty, bleak skies above.
This is China.
And breathe….(or not).
Proud to share this over on Seychelles Mama’s #MyExpatFamily
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