China Plows Ahead With Coal Plants as Smog Envelopes Northern Cities

china-face-masks-beijing-pollution-nov10-2015.jpg Young people wear face masks as they walk on street on a moderately polluted day in Beijing, Nov. 10, 2015.

China is continuing to commission coal-fired power plants despite a renewed “airpocalypse” in its northern cities this winter and in the face of declining demand for energy, according to a recent report.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which monitors air pollution unofficially, tweeted that PM2.5 particulate matter concentrations were at "very unhealthy" levels, measuring 248 on Friday, nearly 10 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Photos showed dark gray, muddy smog enveloping the northeastern industrial city of Shenyang, with people wearing face masks and even a gas mask for protection.

A Beijing business owner surnamed Zhao, who supplies face masks of all kinds around the country, said he fully expects sales of the items to skyrocket as the city faces further smog through the winter.

"Sales have tripled, mostly of facial dust masks, with the clients mostly from northern China, outside Beijing," Zhao said. "People tend to use them on a daily basis in the winter as a way of filtering out the particulate matter."

As the smog set in for the winter season, where temperature inversions and coal-fired central heating hold the smoggy air in place, Beijing rights activist Ge Zhihui said visibility is still low in the city.

"The smog is particularly bad during the day at the moment, with very low visibility," Ge said. "There's a lot of pollution from the industry that surrounds Beijing, and it's toxic. I usually wear a mask when I'm in Beijing."

According to the environmental group Greenpeace, China has given the go-ahead to more than 150 coal power plants so far this year despite government promises to clean up the country's hazardous levels of air pollution.

The government issued environmental approvals to 155 coal-fired power plants this year, although not all will necessarily go ahead, the group said in a report this week.

It said Beijing has nonetheless committed to renewables, gas and nuclear targets for 2020, adding that five of the proposed plants are in Shenyang where pollution levels have hit levels 50 times higher than WHO guidelines.

Greenpeace said nearly half of the proposed power plants are in areas with severe water shortages, and blamed bureaucratic changes in the approval process for the glut of new projects.

Nearly 80 percent of the 376 cities monitored by Greenpeace East Asia had air pollution at hazardous levels last month, exceeding both national and international standards, despite modest improvements from last year.

The central provinces of Hunan and Hubei, the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, and the northwestern region of Xinjiang all ranked in the top 10 most polluted provinces, the group said.

'Parade Blue' skies only

He Ping, director of the Washington-based International Fund for China’s Environment (IFCE) said a key measure to adopt would be more sustainable transportation options, as well as cutting coal consumption.

"Beijing has done a good job with its subway system, and it could open up a few more express transportation channels to relieve traffic congestion on the roads," He said.

"[They could] cut down on private car use and boost the use of public transportation."

Environmental activist Song Xinzhou, who founded the nongovernmental group Green Beijing, said that many of the capital's residents would like to use bicycles to connect with the subway, but that facilities are lacking.

"Beijing is really too large for people to cycle to and from work, unless they were to sort out some of the bottlenecks for people cycling to the subway," Song told RFA.

"They just haven't got the integrated policies necessary ... that's the way things are, including in the suburb where I live," he said, adding that there is a lack of managed facilities like parking for cyclists wishing to use greener forms of transportation.

Negative media coverage of Beijing's smog, with its characteristic photos of dirty grey skies, blurred buildings, and people in face masks has driven a mild improvement in the capital, Greenpeace has said.

But the phenomenon of clean skies around major prestigious events in Beijing is the butt of frequent Internet humor, with the recent clear skies dubbed "Parade Blue" for a September military parade marking the end of World War II.

Fujian-based online activist Xiao Ke said most people aren't under any illusions about what it's like to live in the Chinese capital, and many mistrust the pollution figures reported by the government.

"I spent 15 days there once, and the only time we saw blue sky was on the rare occasions that it rained," Xiao Ke said. "Everything was grey, from when we woke up to when we went to sleep at night."

"And there was no way of knowing what the true pollution index was."

Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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