China’s “Airpocalypse” Grounds Flights and People

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

This week, Beijing was hit by China’s strongest sand storm in a decade and conservationists are blaming an ongoing “ecological crisis” in the north and west of one of the world’s most populous cities. Air quality readings, which averaged 80 throughout most of 2020, reached 999 on Monday, triggering a “yellow alert” from China’s weather bureau. The storm impacted 12 provinces and cities and prompted Beijing officials to impose a stay-at-home order for children and sick or elderly people. Experts say the storm is a symptom of unchecked industrial development, despite President Xi Jinping’s calls for a “green revolution” and commitments to reducing emissions.

Why This Matters: China is the world’s largest polluter, accounting for about 28% of the globe’s carbon emissions. China’s recently raised its 2030 national climate targets to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But experts argue that the nation’s economic growth and development policy is at odds with its Paris agreement commitments. Strip mining, overgrazing, and industrial development in the region called Inner Mongolia have left the region’s sandy, grassy steppes unstable and prone to erratic weather patterns. Outside Beijing, industrial pollutants emitted so far in 2021 have exceeded the averages of the last four years. Experts worry that more frequent and severe dust storms could exacerbate respiratory illnesses and future COVID outbreaks.

How Did Development Turn to Sand?

Just last week, President Jinping met with delegates from Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China, to discuss combatting desertification in the already dry, grassy region. “We must adhere to the concept that clear waters and green mountains are as good as mountains of gold and silver,” he said. But just one week later, the sand storm swept through.

The storm, which grounded more than 400 flights, was “the result of land and ecological degradation in the north and west of Beijing,” said Li Shuo, policy director for Greenpeace China. “Beijing is what an ecological crisis looks like. After two weeks of smog and static air, strong wind carries a sand storm in, sending [air quality index] off the chart.” The sandstorm was kicked up by a late winter storm that swept through Mongolia, killing nine people and knocking out power across the country.

In the past, China’s government has succeeded in making the changes necessary to reduce smog and sandstorms. After experiencing frequent and similar “airpocalypses” for years, government efforts succeeded at reducing pollution by 33% from 2016 to 2018. In Beijing, pollution fell by 53%. But now, experts say that a post-COVID industrial boom is undoing much of that progress. China has pledged to incorporate green policy into its COVID-19 recovery plans, but that is yet to be made a reality.

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