Beijing’s rising middle class finally cried enough of the relentless thick pall of dangerous smog choking China’s biggest city.
In a rare display of anger and unrest in the authoritarian one-party state, they took to the country’s popular social media app WeChat demanding the Government take immediate action to protect their children.
In just 24 hours, a petition calling for the installation of air filtration systems in schools gathered nearly half a million views and more than 2700 comments, reports The Washington Post.
The incendiary January campaign was quickly shut down on the heavily censored platform, but not before the beleaguered Government promised to comply with the frustrated parents’ demands.
China officials have vowed to wage “a war on pollution” for the last three years, but an increasing number of exasperated citizens are sceptical of the results.
For weeks, much of northern China has been covered in a thick deadly smog. It is one of the worst episodes of air pollution the country has ever endured, affecting 460 million people.
Recent pollution readings in Beijing were more than double the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The city’s new pollution police are trying valiantly to curb the crisis, ordering 1200 factories near the Chinese capital, including a major oil refinery run by state oil giant Sinopec, to shut or cut output after authorities issued the highest possible air pollution alert, reports ABC News.
The Beijing government has also launched a programme of alternate driving days based on licence plate numbers
But many critics and environmental groups say it’s a losing battle because of China’s heavy reliance on cheap and plentiful coal, one of the biggest polluters in the world’s second biggest economy.
Despite the billions pledged for renewable energy, 200 new coal power plants will be built across the country to satisfy a demand for the fossil fuel that’s bigger than the rest of the world combined.
Although not on the same scale as China, other major cities around the world, of course, are far from immune to the pollution scourge.
Sydneysiders were recently issued with a health warning by state authorities concerned the combination of hot, still weather and pollution had put those with respiratory issues such as asthma at risk.
New South Wales Health said the unique conditions produced an excess of dangerous ozone gas, which can damage the lungs, and cause chest pain, coughing and throat irritation when inhaled.
It has been estimated that each year more than 3000 Australians die premature deaths from urban air pollution, according to a comprehensive Queensland University study, The burden of disease and injury in Australia 2003, prepared for the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.
That’s almost three times the annual road toll, and costs the nation more than $24 billion in health care costs each year.
All state governments signed on to the National Clean Air Agreement at the end of 2015, which imposed some of the toughest air pollution standards in the world.
For the first time ever, national limits were set at eight micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 pollution – particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less – and at 25 micrograms per cubic metre for PM10, particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less. Victoria and the ACT opted to implement a stricter state-specific threshold of 20 micrograms per cubic metre.
But figures released in early 2016 from the National Pollutant Inventory’s 2014-15 report showed the air quality across Australia had deteriorated to disturbing levels, with the coal industry the most culpable.
Nationally, total PM10 emissions had increased 69 per cent in one year, and 194 per cent in five years, said advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia (EJA)
EJA researcher Dr James Whelan told The Sydney Morning Herald at the time that the findings raised serious questions about the future of Australia’s air quality.
He called for tougher federal government regulation, an urgent transition from coal to renewable energy, and a National Pollution Act.
“Watching the continuing escalation of air pollution across Australia, particularly from coal mines and coal-fired power stations, is like seeing a car speed faster and faster with no police response.”
In 2015, a study by researchers at London’s Kings College found about 9500 people died each year in the city due to long-term exposure to urban pollution.
The city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan issued several recent warnings, including telling public transport passengers to stay away from bus stops when air quality plummets.
Although the pollution is not as visibly obvious as in cities such as Beijing, or Delhi, the toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in some London hotspots regularly breached European Union standards in 2016.
Campaigners say London got off to has breached its annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017, a “shameful reminder of the severity of London’s air pollution”, according to campaigners.
Concerned London parent Shazia Ali-Webber became an anti-pollution campaigner for I Like Clean Air after worrying about the damage being done to her young sons’ lungs on their walk to school.
“We do know from the studies that children’s lungs are being stunted,” she says.
“And the worst thing is that stunting stays with them into their adult lives so the respiratory problems that occur will stay with them.”
Adds Rob Cawthorne, managing director of the Sydney-based Carbon Reduction Institute: “Pollution is a problem that affects all of us.”
“No matter where we are from, or who we are, we all want clean air which is safe to breath and not harmful to human health.
“As a parent, I feel for the parents of children all around the world who are suffering from respiratory illness due to the poor quality of the air they breathe. Climate change action addresses global warming while at the same time helps deal with this global public health issue.”
Diesel cars and other heavy vehicles are blamed for much of London’s air problems.
Mr Khan said he will more than double funding to clear up the capital’s dirty air, improving the quality of buses and encouraging taxi drivers to switch from the older black cabs to new ones with zero emissions.
The silver lining to Delhi’s smog is that the stigma is also forcing politicians to act. The government plans to introduce tougher regulations on vehicle makers and build a bypass around the city.
Paris is also taking dramatic steps to curtail its rising traffic pollution. Cars will soon be banned from outside the Louvre museum, which welcomes nine million visitors a year.
The city also plans to expand its already impressive cycling infrastructure, and from 2018 will launch a new ‘tram-bus’ to boost public transport options along the right bank of the Seine.
Cities like Bordeaux and Lyon are way ahead of Paris in terms of reopening access to their riverbanks and banning polluting diesel cars from the city centre, as Tokyo has done, said Christophe Najdovski, the Deputy Mayor in charge of transport.