LONDON — My mornings in my home in Beijing always follow the same routine. Wake up. Make coffee. Check Air Quality Index online. Feel faintly depressed.
The AQI is tweeted by the U.S. embassy hourly. The rating ranges from “good” to “hazardous” to off the charts, and it determines my day: whether I bike or take public transport to work, whether I go for a run outside, and in the summer, whether I eat dinner in my balmy courtyard or huddle indoors with the windows shut and the air filter on.
It is a relief, then, to be back in London for the holidays; here, rain, not pollution, dominates small talk. I joke that driving into Beijing on a bad day is like entering the Gates of Mordor. England’s endlessly shifting tableaux of clouds, by contrast, seem sublime.
But that’s only if you forget that London was also once renowned for its “pea soupers” or “killer fog.” For decades during industrialization, Britain’s politicians ignored concerns over pollution in the name of economic progress. Only when a disaster struck and thousands died did the government clean up its act.
For London, the disaster was the Great Smog of 1952, which hit the city just this month 60 years ago. Near-freezing temperatures led to excessive coal burning in homes, which, combined with low winds, produced a thick yellow fog. Visibility was reduced to just a few feet. Public transport, cinemas, theaters and sporting venues closed down. An estimated 4,000 people died, mostly among the young, the elderly and sufferers of respiratory illnesses.
Accounts of that time relaying acrid-tasting air and nostrils lined with black grit sound eerily prescient of the current situation in China. In Beijing, so-called blue-sky days are rare. Mostly, the horizon is hazy. On days termed hazardous, it can be hard to see buildings across the street, and even a short spell outside will make my body feel lethargic, my head pound and my eyes and nose itch.
China is industrializing on a scale never seen before. While it has set targets to increase its consumption of non-fossil fuel energy by 2015, it remains the world’s top producer and consumer of coal — it, alone, accounts for around half of global consumption.
China, as Peter Thorsheim, author of “Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800,” points out, would do well to learn from Britain’s mistakes for both its sake and its neighbors’. The Great Smog was a catastrophe, but it was also a “moment of opportunity amid the tragedy,” Thorsheim told me this week. The British government turned criticism from the opposition and the public into concrete improvements, including the 1956 Clean Air Act.
Has China reached its Great Smog moment? By the 1950s, although war-torn, Britain was already one of the world’s most technologically advanced and wealthiest nations; that surely helped its decision. China, despite its overall economic might, has not yet reached that stage in per capita terms, and development remains the Chinese Communist Party’s primary concern.
But the Chinese government is starting to make concessions, largely to prevent social unrest.
The tens of thousands of people in Beijing who use the U.S. Embassy’s AQI feed were receiving vastly different readings from those released by the Chinese government: In 2010 and 2011, Beijing officials announced good air quality nearly 80 percent of the time, whereas the U.S. Embassy rated over 80 percent of days as unhealthy or worse. Following public pressure, the government has since added a network of monitors around Beijing to measure PM2.5, or fine-particulate air pollution.
Last year, Chinese bloggers became outraged over news that their leaders used sophisticated air filters while the populace was left uninformed about the real risks. Protests over polluting factories have erupted across the country, forcing some local officials to back down on industrial projects. In some instances, even the state-run media have accused the government of hiding the exact scale of the pollution.
Indeed, the extent of the problem, and the toll it takes on China’s inhabitants, isn’t yet fully understood.
One issue is that pollution can seem like a remote threat. Most Londoners who lived through the Great Smog thought it was simply an especially foggy period until the undertakers ran out of coffins and the florists sold out of funeral flowers.
This month, The Lancet released a report stating that in 2010 3.2 million people died prematurely from air pollution, mostly in Asia. Until China gains multiple political parties, freedom of speech and a well-developed civil society, many more are likely to pass away unnoticed.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore