Even the People's Daily, a mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, is publicly asking in its editorials for answers to the pollution problem. This is remarkable given the Chinese government's reluctance to address the problem at all in recent years.
The air pollution level in Beijing in the past few days hit levels 25 times worse than what the U.S. government considers safe. In fact, one reason this story rose to a level beyond any government's control was that people started to notice the difference between the air pollution forecasts released by the Chinese government and those tweeted out by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (see that information here ).
The first time people worldwide began to notice how embarrassed China was of its unfriendly skies was during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when rumors of how the government was covering up its pollution problem abounded. According to some, they shut down power plants and rerouted all power to Beijing while leaving the outlying areas in the dark just to get a few clear-skied days. Others said the athletes had to move in early and practice doing their events while breathing Beijing's air, just to get used to it.
Beijing isn't even the worst-polluted place in China. Other cities reporting high levels of smog are Tianjin and Wuhan City. In total, some 30 major cities and their outlying areas could be affected.
In response to the air crisis, authorities have shut down several major construction projects. One Hyundai Motors plant shut down completely, while others are merely reducing their output. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center has encouraged the elderly, children and those suffering from respiratory ailments to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise.
The pollution in question is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrograms in diameter, or "fines," as they are sometimes called in the power generation industry. The primary causes of the smog include tailpipe exhaust, emissions from coal-fired power plants and even the coal-burning heaters that people in poorer areas use to keep warm in China's unusually cold winter this year.
What can China do other than what it has already done? Well, the country has made up its mind to continue building nuclear power plants , which can serve the needs of a power-hungry nation without polluting.
China's roads are filling up with cars, too, so perhaps the country could take a cue from another country that is also growing quickly. India's prime minister recently unveiled his plan to put 7 million electric vehicles on his country's roads. With China's famous manufacturing sector, the country could probably build 7 million cars before lunchtime. (In seriousness, the country only has 5 million vehicles and the process for getting a license to own a car can take years)
When it comes to designing cities, high-rises could be spread out and planners could focus on building greenbelts and planting more trees. More open air would mean more places for the wind to circulate and sweep away some of the smog.
The application of energy efficiency in older buildings could go a long way, as could the installation of scrubbers and other retrofits at coal-fired power plants.
Something has to give, though. What good can come from building huge, glittering cities that you can't safely power? What's the point of becoming an economic superpower whose people can't go outside?
China's government has long been mindful of dissidents, so it's hard to see them not taking this problem seriously. When nobody can breathe easily, it gets harder and harder to get people to look the other way.
As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.