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The portrait of a country and its people fighting air pollution

"Oh no", whispers Fu Chunmei while reading the text message she just received, “again”. She peers out of the window of her house. It's a nice winter day in Beijing. 

“Beijing heavy pollution Red Alert will start from..” reads the message. A quick switch to the messaging app to open the parents' group chat of her son’s class. Someone has already texted: “Red Alert for air pollution! What do we do?”. “I will escape Beijing! Who wants to come with us?” she texts without hesitation.

The four-tier color-coded warning system for air pollution is a new system introduced in 2015 as part of China’s war on pollution. A Red Alert, the most serious one, is issued by the municipal government when the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches a level of 500 or when four days of heavy air pollution, including two days of severe air pollution, are forecasted. The measure involves suspension of work at construction sites, restrictions to private vehicles use, the closure of kindergartens and primary schools and the temporary shutdown of certain industrial activities deemed responsible for the air pollution.

This measure reflects a far different approach of the government towards environmental issues compared to the past, when climate change was perceived as an excuse the first world was using to hamper the growth of developing countries. The failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 being the most representative example.

Then the haze came.

“It came suddenly” says Zhu, Beijinger and mother of two, “Seven years ago when I was pregnant the days were really good. When the kids were at the age of two I used to bring them outside every day. No need to check the weather first and then decide if go out. But recently this has become part of our daily routine. If it’s very polluted, we just stay home. There’s nothing else to do, it drives everybody crazy”.

Thanks also to the help of social media, awareness started to raise among citizens and with it came anger. Some forms of protest started to appear, contributing to a change in public mood. This was involved in finally triggering an escalation of responses by the government and in 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution. In 2014 China declared war on pollution. 2015 marked the signing of the COP21 Paris Agreement, with China emerging as a pacesetter in the fight against climate change.

The sources of air pollution

“Greenpeace and China's Ministry of Environmental Protection both conducted research and coal was highlighted as the major source in many cities in North China” says Dong Liansai, a campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia Climate & Energy. Coal burning was also recognized as the “single largest source of air pollution-related health impact, contributing to some 366,000 premature deaths in China in 2013”, according to a report of the Global Burden of Disease – Major Air Pollution Sources (GBD MAPS) project.

Coal consumption decreased in 2014 and 2015, year-on-year, and seems to be on a downward trend. “In 2016 we would expect the same drop” adds Dong. “There was an uptick of coal consumption in the second half of 2016, but until November, the most updated data we have, the overall number is still falling”.
China is in fact pushing hard to reduce the share of coal in its energy mix and it’s even more ambitious in its commitment to renewables as it can be clearly seen in the 13th Five Year Plan on Energy Development, unveiled on January 2017.

This had an immediate effect in the recent cancellation of 103 coal-fired power plants, announced by the National Energy Administration in January 2017. These power plants were part of 210 already approved for construction in 2015, against which Greenpeace already spoke out in this report, dated February 2016.

“With regard to the other half that hasn’t been cancelled” points out Dong, “we're expecting more bans from NEA”. In his view, a recent surge in coal prices has meant that coal-powered production of energy is becoming less and less profitable, and this will cause the coal power companies themselves to halt a number projects.

The results of the recent policies are evident: the average concentration of PM 2.5 in the country is actually diminishing. However, the situation varies among different cities. "Several cities in Guangdong already met China's own National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) in PM2.5 readings and other cities, like Shenzhen, are already aiming at the next stage. Meanwhile, cities in North China like Shijiazhuang are seeing rebound PM2.5 pollution levels", adds Dong.

In Beijing the average concentration of PM2.5 in 2016 decreased 19% compared to 2013, but it's still far from meeting the World Health Organization standards. A joint report by Greenpeace East Asia and Shanghai Qingyue Environmental Protection Center estimated this will happen in 2046, resulting in 30 more years of polluted air in the capital.

The effects on people

The GBD MAPS project estimates the annual number of air pollution related premature deaths in China (2013) at 916,000, with cardiovascular disease, heart disease, and stroke accounting for the majority. The scenario analysis they made for 2030 is not at all positive. Despite reductions in PM2.5 levels in all the future scenarios, future deaths attributable to ambient PM2.5 are predicted to increase, even under “maximum feasible emission controls regardless of costs”. An aging population and changes in the prevalence of diseases affected by exposure to air pollution significantly affects figures.

How do people cope with this?

1) Fight! Zhu 

“We wear pollution masks, I called them my new weapons” says Zhu, mother of twin 7-year-old girls, showing the pollution masks she bought for 300 renminbi each (44 USD). "They cost a lot, but I chose the best ones to protect my children. We also use air cleaners at home and pay attention to the alerts”. The air cleaner she just bought for her house sits in a niche the wall.  “It’s huge and I feel bad because it makes my room ugly”. It costed her 20,000 renminbi (2,900 USD). “It’s ridiculous that common people need to pay for this problem”, she adds.

Together with the other parents they even decided to buy air cleaners for their children’s school. “We appreciate that the school allowed us to do that because it costs them electricity, but we, parents, are in charge of removing the filters when the school closes for winter and summer vacations and putting them back when it reopens”.
When the air pollution is bad, but not serious enough to trigger the Red Alert, the school remains open: “I want to take my children out of school to go to places with good weather but my husband disagrees as the children need to have their education”.

The trade-off between education and health is a hard one to balance for those who decide to remain and fight.

2) Run! Fu Chunmei

December 16, 2016. After receiving the SMS announcing the Red Alert for the following days, Fu Chunmei, Beijinger and mother of a 9-year-old boy, had no hesitation.

“My mother-in-law was visiting us, she has some respiratory problems, something is wrong with her lungs. When the government announced the haze and that children could take some time out of school, we decided to leave Beijing and drive to other places with clean and fresh air”.

A quick check on an air pollution app helped to decide where to go.
“The first place we chose was a mountain villa in HuaiRou district, at that time the AQI was only around 20 to 50, so I thought it might be a good option”.
After spending the week-end with the family, her husband had to come back to Beijing because of work.

Where next?

“I thought the pollution in Beijing was getting better and I wanted to move to a location closer to the city to be ready to send my son back to school as soon as the alert was lifted”.

They decided to stay at a hotel near YanQi Lake, 70 km outside of the capital.

But the smog came again.

“It was December 19, in the evening the weather was still good. At around midnight the haze became stronger. The following morning I woke up and I looked outside of the window. I chose to escape again.”

After seeking suggestions from other parents, they decided for a folk house near GuBei town, MiYun District. “It was hard for me. It was dark outside and I drove 70 or 80 km with the help of the GPS”, adds Fu. “When we arrived there, the weather was better, so we decided to stay for two nights”.

After being away for four days the haze leave of her son was over, however, the pollution in Beijing was not completely gone. Fu decided to stay more. “We are part of a small group of parents that decided not to send back our children to school.”
Then the wind came to Beijing and the poisonous haze was blown away. Fu, her son and her mother-in-law could finally come back.

The running was over, for this time.

3) Escape! Ma Di

It’s Red Alert in Beijing and people are ready for another battle or another getaway. Ma Di, Beijinger and mother of a 6-year-old boy, can see her friends posting updates on their social media feed while sitting in her yard and having breakfast. It’s a warm and sunny day in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

My husband says: ”It’s like a war. When you have no place to hide, you can only leave” she tells.

Back in 2014, when they were still living in Beijing the situation was different. “At that time, the air pollution in Beijing was very bad but we had no courage to pack everything and leave. We were born and raised in Beijing. Our families, friends and relationships were all there. I kept believing the air quality could get better the following year. However, it got worse and worse. Air pollution is everywhere and you don’t even feel it when you breathe. What a terrible thing! And once you lose health, you lose everything”, she remembers.
Their son was only 4 years old then. He was attending an international kindergarten and asking for leave was not a problem. That’s how their story began.

“Once the haze alert was announced, we immediately booked tickets and left Beijing. We went to Tokyo, Okinawa and Hokkaido in Japan, Seoul in Korea, different islands in Thailand, Bali Island, Philippines, Yunnan Province and Sanya in China. Since my son holds an American passport, he didn’t need any visa. My husband and I had multi-entry visas to Japan and Korea, in case we decided to leave suddenly.”

As time went by they realized this was not a practical solution for the future. Their son was approaching primary school and leaving 180 days out of a year was not feasible anymore.

In December, 2015, the Red Alert came again. Ma and her family immediately left for Hokkaido, Japan. “But what should we do next time and the next one again? There is no end.”

After coming back home, Ma decided to change the filters of the air cleaners of their house. “It was quite shocking” she remembers. “When I removed the filtering elements some black dregs fell on the floor. The filters were completely filthy. I shot a photo and uploaded it on my WeChat friends circle. Many of them were shocked. A city with such a poor air quality is not livable”.
This is when they decided to leave for good.

They decided for Chiang Mai, Thailand. Good air quality and good education for their son were the main reasons behind their choice. Moreover, Chiangmai is not far from Beijing and they can fly directly between the two cities every time they need to, without any jet lag. The city has its own Chinese diaspora, everyone with their own reasons and purposes. For Beijingers, however, the reason is always the same: fleeing from air pollution.

Their life in Thailand is happy now, "but nothing is perfect", she ends.
“Each coin has two sides, so does our choice”.

This is the portrait of a country and its people fighting air pollution.

"I've heard about the heavy haze in Beijing. Therefore, before coming here, I bought pollution masks."
Wu, 28 years old, from Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province.
"Pollution masks should well block the pollution. And they'd better be good-looking"
Ma, from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.
"When air pollution is bad all outdoor activities at school get cancelled." 
Lu, 16 years old, from Beijing
"We need to find a balance between the development of the economy and the environment."
Ju Lili, 27 years old, from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.
"I traveled around the world but I still love China. This is my homeland. I don't want move to other countries. This is why I can only wear a mask and live here."
Wang Kai, 32 years old, from Shanghai.
"It is not easy to control the pollution, and I think it will take decades. That is to say, almost the health of this generation will be sacrificed."
Chen, 36 years old, from Shanxxi Province.
"From what we experienced this winter, nothing is improving. 
But I haven't been here for so long, so maybe there is a trend that I don’t know."
Taoye, from Zhejian Province.
"It doesn't only depend on the government,  it also depends on the consciousness of everyone, this is the only way."
Yao Yi Qian, 27 years old, from Changzhou, Jiangsu province.
"We are quite worried about the weather. When it's bad, we wear masks or we avoid going out."
Xue, 49 years old, from Changchun, Jilin Province.
"It is the cost of modernization. I believe western countries had the same problem before" 
Xu Haiwan, 35 year old, from Beijing.
Xu Haiwan's son, 5 years old, from Beijing .