by Zhang Kai
BEIJING, Feb. 2 (Xinhuanet) -- Spring Festival is about family reunion, the Lunar New Year Eve dinner, and visiting relatives and friends. It is also about setting off fireworks. But with heavy smog covering many cities across North and East China for long spells, especially last year, people have begun debating whether fireworks should be banned during Spring Festival.
The irony is that despite increasing public awareness about environmental protection and a few local governments introducing some rules to limit the use of fireworks this Spring Festival, people are still reluctant to give up the traditional customs and practices.
Ministry of Environmental Protection officials recently said that since the Lunar New Year is the peak time for setting off fireworks, the air quality in the days following it will be particularly poor. Official data show that fireworks can rapidly increase particulate matter, like PM10 and PM2.5, and raise the concentration of sulfur dioxide and other contaminants by several times in the atmosphere. PM10 and PM2.5 are particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less and 2.5 micrometers or less that can be inhaled by and are hazardous to humans. Fireworks set off during Spring Festival drastically raise the level of PM2.5, among other pollutants, in the atmosphere.
The concentration of pollutants in Beijing, for example, increased by 150 microgram per cubic meter on Lunar New Year's day in 2013 because of fireworks. In some areas of Beijing, PM2.5 even exceeded 1,000 microgram per cubic meter, much higher than the safe recommended level, and the mean concentration of PM10 was 300 microgram per cubic meter, higher by 220 microgram per cubic meter. Fireworks set off during Spring Festival last year also worsened the air quality in Tianjin, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang in Hebei province and Nanjing in Jiangsu province.
Although fireworks will increase the annual average PM2.5 this year too, the fact is the level of air pollution would cause worry even without fireworks worsening it. No wonder, finding ways to reduce air pollution and clear the smog has became a national environmental issue.
Among the 74 major cities monitored for PM2.5 concentration last year, only six including Kunming, Xiamen and Lhasa met the national air quality standard. In 34 cities, the PM2.5 concentration was more than twice the national standard level, with even cities like Chengdu and Nanjing, which many experts consider "livable", having serious air pollution problems.
Many people expect the government to take strict measures to make Chinese cities truly livable. But going by the government's plans and promises, the air quality in most cities in North China can meet the national standard only by 2030. This is a long order. So it is time local governments across China followed the example of some cities like Beijing that have pledged to take more emission reduction measures to meet the national air quality standard by 2017.
The burning of coal, which plays a vital role in China's energy structure, is a key source of air pollution, with emissions from heavy industry and the growing number of vehicles being the other main sources. So reducing the use of coal and cutting emissions will reduce air pollution, right? Perhaps not, because that cannot be done in a short time, although Beijing and its surrounding areas such as Tianjing, and Hebei and Shandong provinces have taken specific measures to reduce the use of coal. But since most of the other provinces, especially Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, are ambiguous about reducing the use of coal, air pollution is likely to continue for some time.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection, however, asked local governments earlier this month to submit their plans to reduce air pollution during Spring Festival. This may underline the importance of traditional culture vis-a-vis environmental protection in China. Some experts, nevertheless believe that despite being important, traditional culture should adjust to the demand of the times. This is to say that, setting off fireworks should be controlled, if not totally banned, if it threatens to worsen air quality further.
The good news is that an increasing number of people are ready to forego the joys of setting off fireworks during Spring Festival in exchange for cleaner air. Let's hope people limit the use of fireworks this Lunar New Year and the government announces more long-term policies to curb their use and make Spring Festival an eco-friendly celebration.
The author is a Greenpeace climate & energy campaigner.
(Source: China Daily)