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Beijing Just Issued Its First “Red Alert” for Smog

Will the city’s latest smog crisis spur international action on climate change?

A cyclist braves Beijing's smog with a face mask last month. (Imaginechina/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Epic traffic jams. A burgeoning population. Beijing is known as one of the world’s most crowded cities, and over the last several years it’s gained an infamous reputation for its smog. Now, reports Reuters, the city has passed another pollution milestone: It’s issued its first-ever “red alert” for pollution.

The warning comes with suggestions that schools and businesses close, outdoor construction work cease and orders for certain types of vehicles to stay off the streets, Reuters reports.

The recommended measures and the warning itself are part of a color-based warning system  called the “Air Quality Index,” or AQI, that sorts air pollution into green (good), yellow (moderate), orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups), and a variety of shades of red representing unhealthy, very unhealthy, hazardous and beyond.

In the past, reports Bloomberg Business’s Christina Larson, Beijing has not declared red alerts due to political pressures to keep schools open and China’s public image squeaky clean. Today’s warning comes after pollution levels spiked last week, reports Reuters. After the spike, citizens questioned the government’s failure to announce a red alert, but predictions of more than three consecutive days of the choking smog now seem to have prompted officials to issue the alert.

Though reports of foggy clouds of pollution may horrify residents of other cities, they have become a matter of course in Beijing. But that doesn’t mean that residents are resigned. The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports that performance artist Wang Renzheng recently vacuumed up smog residue over the course of 100 days, then made the dust into a brick to represent the city’s pollution problem.

The Independent’s Lu-Hai Liang writes that Beijing’s residents are “waking up to the crisis of climate change,” pushing officials to make key climate change agreements during this week’s talks in Paris.

Perhaps the red alert could be a tipping point for residents of a city that’s so smoggy, its pollution can be viewed from space. For now, Beijing is probably best viewed from indoors.

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