Beijing to launch pollution police

Though big on policy, enforcement has always been an issue for China in fighting smog in its capital. Enter the pollution police.

Airpocalypse now
Air-pocalypse now: The level of harmful particulate matter in Beijing exceeds 500 micrograms per cubic metre on red-alert days. The safe standard set by the World Health Organization is 25 micrograms per cubic metre in a 24-hour period. Image: axz700 /

Beijing will launch an environmental police force to tackle air pollution, the city’s mayor announced on Monday.

Though the Chinese capital’s smog problem is hardly news, the city has suffered from particularly bad air lately.

At the start of the year, Beijing was one of 21 Chinese cities to issue an orange alert, the second-highest level of a four-tiered smog warning system. The bad air spell lasted seven days before a cold front brought rare blue skies back to the capital. 

Acting mayor Cai Qi told reporters at a press conference in Beijing on Monday that the weak enforcement of environmental protection laws has exacerbated the city’s pollution problem, and extra police resources will be devoted to tackling it.

“Open-air barbecues, garbage incineration, biomass burning, dust from roads - these acts of non-compliance with regulations are actually the result of lax supervision and weak law enforcement,” Cai told China’s state news agency Xinhua

The mayor did not indicate when the pollution police would be mobilised, how many officers would be deployed nor what powers they would wield. 

Other measures the city plans to take to curb air pollution include a reduction in coal consumption - a major contributor to the smog - by 30 per cent in 2017, and the removal of 300,000 highly polluting vehicles from the road, the government news agency stated.

Also this year, 500 heavily polluting factories will close, and 2,560 will be upgraded to meet tougher pollution standards, according to Xinhua.

The plans for a “pollution police” in Beijing come 10 months after a top government official declared a “people’s war” on pollution, and a yellow alert was issued in Northern China amid another bout of heavy smog. The official, Wang Guoqing, spokesman for the parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was ridiculed on social media for using Maoist language, with netizens pointing out that ordinary people were mostly powerless to stop pollution caused by state-backed heavy industry.

Beijing issued its first-ever red alert - the highest-level warning - a little more than a year ago in December 2015, when the country’s leaders were taking part in the Paris climate talks. Pollution alerts are issued based on the volume of dangeous particulate matter in the air (PM 2.5).

Because of the alert, schools were closed, limits were placed on car use, some factories were shuttered and outdoor construction halted

However, the authorities were criticised for not having acted soon enough to issue the warning. The red alert was issued when the volume of particulate matter had exceeded 10 times the level the World Health Organisation deems hazardous to breathe. However, the previous week the pollution had reached 40 times the WHO threshold.

Beijing has a miserable reputation for smog, with rapid economic expansion fueled mainly by coal power, clogged roads, and the proliferation of factories in the regions around the capital chiefly responsible. But it is not the world’s - or even China’s - most polluted city.

According to a study by the World Health Organisation released at the end of 2016, the industrial Chinese cities of Xingtai and Baoding have dirtier air than Beijing, and sit in the top 10 ranking of the world’s most foul-aired cities. 

The city with the world’s worst air is the Iranian city of Zabol, mostly due to severe dust storms. Four rapidly growing Indian cities make the list - Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna and Raipur. Two are from Saudi Arabia, and one from Cameroon’s Bamenda - the only city in the ranking not in Asia.

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