Beijing introduces new rules to curb car use on bad pollution days

BEIJING – With last winter’s
“Airpocalypse” still fresh in Beijing
officials’ minds, politicians have
introduced new guidelines for dealing
with so-called “bad-air” days. The
scheme calls for an alternative driving
day schedule for cars with even and
odd numbered license plates in the
event of heavy smog.
The new rules, reported late Thursday
by Chinese state news agency Xinhua,
calls for the driving schedule to be
enforced on days when Beijing issues a
“red alert” under a four-tiered
pollution warning system. A red alert
will be issued when the air quality
index (AQI) is expected to be over 300
over a three-day period.
On those days, even and odd
numbered license plates will swap
driving days and the capital will
increase public transportation
frequency and hours of service for
residents. According to the
Environmental Protection Bureau, such
a move would force an estimated 2
million more people onto the city’s
already packed buses and subway.
In addition, the new system would also
require city officials to share the
burden, forcing 30 percent of the
city’s fleet of vehicles to stay off the
roads during bad-air days.
The steps are not without precedent,
albeit for very different circumstances.
Throughout the 2008 Summer
Olympics in Beijing, all of the same
steps were put into place to limit
traffic congestion on the city’s
famously car-choked streets.
Since the Olympics, a scaled down
version of these traffic restrictions
have remained in place, but they were
meant to alleviate traffic, not curb air
pollution, which has only gotten worse
since the Olympic showcase five years
Since 2008, Beijing has claimed some
success in dealing with air pollution,
noting that particulate matter 10
(particulate 10 micrometers in size)
readings across the city have steadily
gone down. However, PM2.5, a far
more dangerous particulate that
originates from car exhaust has
skyrocketed as more cars find their
way onto Beijing’s streets.
A study by the Chinese Academy of
Sciences found that nearly a quarter of
PM2.5 particulate found in the city
originated from car exhaust.
The next biggest emitter, industry and
manufacturing, was also addressed in
the new standards. In addition to
tighter road restrictions on heavy air
pollution days, the new measures call
upon industrial plants and
constructions sites to suspend or limit
work to control particulate in the air.
Even outdoor barbeques will be
suspended in the event of an orange
Children’s safety is also accounted for
in the new guidelines. On red alert
days all kindergartens, primary and
high schools will also suspend classes
until air quality improves.
Again, many of these guidelines are not
new and in fact were put in place after
a particularly brutal stretch of poor air
quality last January. For much of that
month, the AQI soared and the city
was cast in a grey smoggy pall.
At one point, the AQI surpassed 900,
pushing pollution numbers 40-45
times above recommended safety
levels and forcing the government to
finally acknowledge the severity of its
air problem
The new guidelines will help manage
the symptoms of air pollution, but
greater steps will be needed to deal
with the roots of Beijing’s smog
problem, namely runaway car sales,
expansion of heavy industries like steel
production, relentless construction
that kicks up dust across the capital
and an addiction to cheap coal power.
China’s ruling Communist Party has
shown a willingness to tackle many of
these issues as of late, offering up
nearly $1 billion dollars in incentives
to local governments to clean up their
act, either through the suspension of
construction projects or heavy
industry or transitioning from coal-
burning power plants to more
expensive natural gas plants.