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Beijing’s smog problem - an environmental cost of China’s economic miracle

A man wearing a mask walks on a stone bridge in a park on a hazy day in Beijing, China, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. Beijing schools kept children indoors and hospitals saw a spike in respiratory cases Monday following a weekend of off-the charts pollution in China's smoggy capital, the worst since the government began being more open about air-quality data.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP

On Saturday night, you'd have sworn Beijing's streets were the middle of Mordor.

Already renowned for its extraordinary bouts with pollution, Beijing's air hit a new low – or, rather, a high – on the air-quality index scale this weekend, soaring to 755, or 886 micrograms per square metre. The U.S. Embassy puts out hourly readings of PM 2.5, the smallest and most dangerous particulate matter, on Twitter; the scale normally tops out at 500, a level they call hazardous. A popular iPhone app carrying the readings has now had to create a new category, extremely hazardous. It's colour-coded black.

By comparison, the bad-air alerts in southern Ontario last summer were generally for PM 2.5 of up to 90 micrograms per square metre, or less than 100 on the index.

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As Beijing prepares to unveil its 2012 GDP growth later this week, the pollution is a reminder that a country cannot become the world's second-largest economy in just 30 years of global participation without some serious side effects. Among the costs of this pollution are flight cancellations and delays, major road accidents and highway closures, emergency rooms packed with gasping children and adults, and rapidly rising rates of chronic lung disease, heart disease and cancers. The World Bank has estimated that in 2009 alone, air pollution cost the equivalent of 3.3 per cent of China's GDP, or about 700 billion yuan (over $112-billion U.S.).

But as Chinese leaders are finding out, despite their best attempts at censoring public opinion, China's growing and increasingly connected middle class is becoming more aware of the environmental costs of their country's economic miracle. Last year, authorities succumbed to pressure and began publicizing their own measures of PM 2.5 in several major cities. It's often lower than the U.S. embassy scale, but usually close enough for some credibility.

That information means that newspapers are this week writing openly about heavy smog, rather than using euphemisms like fog or haze. On Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblog service, "smoggy weather" had by Sunday night received 7.68 million entries, many of them calling for pollution controls.

They've had some impact: Late Sunday, the Beijing government finally began taking measures, suspending work at more than two dozen construction sites and ordering several dozen companies to reduce production; the Beijing Hyundai Motor Company was reported to have stopped production completely.

Government policy makers routinely talk about the need to rebalance the economy toward more sustainable growth. Last month, Beijing opened a new metro line and two extensions, an example of investment spending designed also to ease pressure on roads. It's unlikely that statisticians will mention the sludgy air out the window along with the annual list of success stories during this week's press conference. But its presence will reinforce the pressure at home to take economic development more slowly, even as the international community looks to China to restore its economic health.

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