White Christmas, Red Alerts

It’s another white Christmas in Beijing, probably the whitest one we’ve had. Usually you can see the towers of the Central Business District in the picture above, but not today! City authorities have issued an orange alert – only the second-highest rating on the smog chart – so it’s not so newsworthy in the eyes of foreign media. And yet, the AQI is “beyond index,” which means it’s beyond hazardous, and almost 40% of the day’s flights had already been canceled by 11 a.m. due to the smog.

So why is it a code orange instead of a code red, as it was over the past weekend and first couple of days this week? Beijing’s smog alert system is a bit faulty, that’s why. Despite having had a great year of air, the end of the year has so far been terrible. It was embarrassing when Boyfriend’s brother came to visit last month for a long weekend, and the AQI never dipped below 300 and routinely went beyond index. People widely mocked the government for failing to issue a red alert. It worked! A week later, another bout of smog triggered Beijing’s first-ever red alert. Foreign media had a field day with it, more proof of China’s dirty, dirty, failing ways and giant problems. My boss even told everyone to work from home.

Still, I enjoyed this Baidu Maps notification: "Visibility of 500 meters, it will be hard to see Santa today!"
Still, I enjoyed this Baidu Maps notification: “Visibility of 500 meters, it will be hard to see Santa today!”

And yet, in reality, the air wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. The AQI for the most part stayed below 300, closer to 200, and even dipped below 200 at times. The AQI in Beijing is usually somewhere in the 100s, so the air was pretty bad, but the cold wintery weather probably made it worse. It was a bit worse during the second red alert, but again, the AQI was nowhere near beyond index, as it is today and as it was during that first bad spell of smog that triggered all the red alerts in the first place.

Before these two red alerts, red alerts were seen as a somewhat mystical creature. By the government’s own system, red alerts are to be issued 24 hours in advance when there is an AQI forecast of 200+ for three or more days. During a code red, heavily polluting factories and construction sites are shut down, cars are taken off the road under the alternating plate system, and schools are forced to skip classes.

An orange alert is issued when the AQI will be 200+ for 2-3 days, and only the heavily polluting factories are closed. And therein lies the problem with Beijing’s smog alert system. The two most severe alert levels only take into account how long the smog is forecasted to linger, albeit at a pretty low level of 200. But I would argue that a day like today, with reported visibility of less than 500 meters, certainly merits a red alert as well, until the AQI falls below 200 again.

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