Beijing has announced a more stringent air quality control warning system in an attempt to nip bad air in the bud before it gets worse, but it remains unclear exactly how often it will be called into play or whether it will even make a difference.

According to CCTV News, a stricter warning system has been put in place as of Tuesday that will result in quicker action to mitigate bad air.

Under the previous warning system, instituted in October 2013, the most serious measures  odds and evens car restrictions and factory shutdowns would kick in when the AQI was forecasted to be over 300 for more than three days in a row.

Under the new standard, that limit will be reduced to AQI 200, also for three days or more.

Additionally, the new Yellow, Orange, and Red alerts call for a wider shutdown of construction and manufacturing in the city.

The old and new systems both have four levels Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Red, in order of severity. According to the Global Times, in 2014 Beijing issued a Blue alert 11 times, a Yellow alert five times, Orange alerts twice, and never called for a Red alert.

Given the fact that air pollution is notoriously difficult to predict, a warning system based on predictions three days out has limited effectiveness. In fact the system seems designed to have a built-in excuse "we didn't think it would be so bad."

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that in reality Beijing's AQI exceeded 300 for three consecutive days on two separate occasions last year, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection's historical data: From February 14-16, 2014 and again on October 8-10, 2014. Neither time was a red alert issued, presumably because it was not predicted to be so bad.

Under the new stringent system, Beijing would have technically been in red alert territory six times in 2014 (Jan 13-15, Feb 13-17, Feb 20-25, Mar 24-27, Oct 7-11, and Oct 18-20). If forecasted properly, that would mean that odd/evens plate restrictions and massive plant closures would have been put into effect.

Shutting factories and such seems imminently doable, but forcing half the cars off the roads on short notice, as is called for in these situations, seems an almost impossible-to-enforce task. What sort of havoc will it enforce on the lives of people who presumably actually use their vehicles to do practical work (as opposed to corrupt officials having their drivers shuttle their mistress to her next hair appointment)?

Frankly, the odds-and-evens system should be permanent. It was in effect during the APEC meeting in November, and although many people left town, many Beijingers realized they'd rather take the subway a bit more if it meant bluer skies.

The city government issues the pollution alert via multiple channels, including TV, radio, newspapers, the internet, and text messages. Red and orange alerts are to be released 24 hours in advance, though they did not state 24 hours from what hour of the day, specifically. Yellow alerts will be issued "in advance" and blue alerts will be released "in a timely manner."

In an effort to clear all this up, we called 12345, the Beijing City General Hotline for Non-Emergency Issues, listed by the city government as the place to call for updates on pollution alerts. The person on the other end of the phone said they he had no idea what time alerts were issued, and would look it up and call us back. That response was not received at press time.

In addition to the mandatory restrictions, the measures call for "suggestions" such as the shuttering of public schools when red alerts are announced. That "suggestion" is just enough to make families have no idea what might happen on a red alert day  will children go to school? Rules call to shut schools on bad air days are well intentioned but entirely impractical for all those that don't have additional relatives or hired help at home to take care of their children.

Of course all of this leaves many questions unanswered. What if, for example, a red alert is announced 24 hours in advance, school is cancelled and odds/evens restrictions are put in, but we wake up the next morning and the air has cleared? Is school back on and can both odds and evens drive? We'll fill you in as news come in but confusion continues to reign for now.

Image: Wikipedia

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