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In Beijing, smog is potent reminder of China’s role in climate talks

Beijing commuters wait for buses amid some of the city’s worst smog this year on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Although most Beijing residents do not wear masks on a regular basis, more and more are wearing them on the city’s worst days for air pollution.
Beijing commuters wait for buses amid some of the city’s worst smog this year on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Although most Beijing residents do not wear masks on a regular basis, more and more are wearing them on the city’s worst days for air pollution. McClatchy

A day after Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Paris for the United Nations climate conference, his country’s capital was smothered Monday with some of its worst smog of the year.

Levels of tiny particulates – known as PM 2.5 – topped 600 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing by late afternoon, according to monitoring by the U.S. Embassy and other institutions. That’s about 24 times higher than the level considered safe by the World Health Organization,

The stench of soot hung over the city of 22 million, with the pollution obscuring visibility and prompting some citizens to question the government’s well-publicized claims of working to clean up the air.

“It is almost impossible to breathe in Beijing now,” wrote Tianxuan Ke’aiduo, a resident of Beijing’s Haidian district, on Weibo, China’s main social media platform. “Even our right of breathing freely is deprived. I call for the government to really treat the air.”

Beijing’s pollution comes partly from vehicle exhaust, but the recent smog is more likely the result of seasonal burning of coal – China’s main form of energy and a major source of greenhouse gases, the focus of the Paris summit. Northern China was unusually cold in November, and once the government cranked up coal-fired boilers to provide residential heating, smog levels spiked and have continued to climb.

Beijing issued an orange alert for the smog over the weekend, the highest alert of the year. Under the designation, factories must reduce production and heavy vehicles are banned from the city, although enforcement of such measures is thought to be uneven.

According to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the heavy smog in Beijing extends across a vast swath of northern China, covering more than 204,000 square miles, an area larger than California. Winds predicted for Wednesday are expected to clear away some of the pollution, but until then, residents are being warned to stay inside.

China has promised to cut emissions at least 60 percent. But in a report this month, Greenpeace East Asia found that China had granted environmental permits to 155 coal-fired power plant during the first nine months of this year.

Xi, China’s president and general secretary of the Communist Party, is expected to be in Paris for less than 48 hours. He met briefly with French President Francois Hollande on Sunday and is expected to confer with Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the conference.

On Monday, he’s scheduled to deliver a speech to the conference, reaffirming China’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of the Paris talks, China has promised to cut emissions at least 60 percent per unit of GDP compared with levels during 2005. It also has promised that its carbon dioxide emissions will reach a peak by 2020.

But in a report this month, Greenpeace East Asia found that China had granted environmental permits to 155 coal-fired power plants during the first nine months of this year, or about four per week.

“If they go into operation, the power plants would have serious environmental and health consequences,” Greenpeace said in a news release.

It added that the 155 plants would emit an annual quantity of carbon dioxide “equivalent to 6 percent of China’s current emissions and seriously exacerbate water scarcity issues.”

In Beijing, the United Nations used its China Weibo account to post a photo of the city’s smog on Monday. It noted the Paris climate conference was about to start and posed a question: “What expectations do you have?”

Hundreds of Chinese netizens responded, some questioning why the U.N. was highlighting their country’s pollution problems.

Still, some said they were hopeful the Paris summit would result in an agreement that might help the environment, worldwide and in China.

“Today’s air pollution is very bad, fog filling the sky,” wrote one commenter, using the pseudonym of Heaven’s Eye. “As a nature lover, I expect that the Paris climate change meeting will reach an agreement to cope with our challenges.”

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth

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