Will Chinese New Year Fireworks Make Beijing’s ‘Crazy Bad’ Air Worse?

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Feng Li / Getty Images

A general view of Beijing city during severe pollution on Jan. 30, 2013 in Beijing, China.

As celebratory diversions go, the fireworks used to mark China’s Spring Festival wreak a huge amount of carnage. On Feb. 1 a truck delivering fireworks in central Henan province exploded, causing a bridge collapse that killed at least 10 people. A huge fireworks display in 2009 ignited a fire at a Beijing building on the grounds of the new China Central Television headquarters that killed a firefighter and caused more than $700 million in damage. Every year in the Chinese capital a few hundred fires are ignited by fireworks, a few hundred people are injured and one or two die from related accidents. For pets the fear can be acute. From the first boom of an M-80, my high-strung Border collie retreats under my chair and proceeds to treat me as a human shield for the ensuing 15-day barrage.

Despite such destruction, the seasonal pyromania has hardly waned since a decade-plus long ban on fireworks in many major Chinese cities was lifted in 2005 and 2006. The explosions, believed to ward of evil spirits, are now unceasing during the holiday period. On New Year’s Eve the view from a tall building like Beijing’s 81-story China World Trade Center tower is incredible, with multicolored explosions shooting up in every direction across the city of more than 20 million. In the courtyard between the Drum and Bell towers along the capital’s central axis, thousands of people gather to watch as residents set off recently purchased fireworks. The noise reverberating off the ancient buildings is deafening and burnt paper shards rain down continually from the sky. On smaller streets middle-aged men—it is almost always men—lug boxes of fireworks into clear spaces, casually light them with cigarettes and then stand back as red, yellow and green explosions fill the air.

Now, as China prepares to welcome the Year of the Snake, there is a new call to cut Beijing’s fireworks appetite. After repeated periods of extreme air pollution this winter, local environmental officials worry that the holiday displays will further degrade the city’s already dangerous air. Over the first month of 2013, Beijing has seen repeated bouts of off-the-charts pollution. The air quality typically improves over the Chinese New Year period. Businesses including polluting factories in the surrounding region shut down for the holiday. The strain on the power grid and coal fired power plants drop. Many of the capital’s migrant workers, who make up 40% of the total population, head home, reducing the number of vehicles on the streets and easing the flow of traffic. But the barrage of fireworks can cause air pollution to spike dramatically. During the recent pollution surges concentrations of PM 2.5, particle measuring 2.5 microns or less, reached 950 micrograms per cubic meter at one station in Beijing on Jan. 13. That same day, the city’s 24-hour PM 2.5 concentration averaged 535, more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard for safe air. (In 2010, when an hourly reading on the U.S. Embassy’s PM 2.5 monitor exceeded 500, it’s Twitter feed memorably said the air quality was “crazy bad.”) But according to a report in the Beijing News, a commercial daily newspaper, during the first day of fireworks last year the PM 2.5 reading at one station on the city’s west side hit 1,593, far worse than anything Beijing has seen during the especially polluted month January.

In a Jan. 29 editorial the paper suggested that the time had come to consider banning fireworks once again, particularly on days when air conditions are particularly bad. “In 2005, Beijing carried out changes to the restrictions with an eye to returning to folk culture and respecting people’s civil rights,” the paper said. “At that time that thinking wasn’t mistaken, but now, eight years later, the city has undergone great changes, and the disturbance and pollution caused by fireworks is greater and greater. There is a clear conflict between setting off fireworks and controlling PM 2.5”

Beijing’s fireworks bureau told the state-run Xinhua news service that it is urging residents to reduce the amount of fireworks they set off over the New Year period. In the days ahead of the Feb. 10 start of the holiday, a strong wind has blown out of the north, drastically improving air quality. If the conditions continue, worries may ease about fireworks’ affect on air quality. In urban Beijing fireworks are restricted to a 15-day period over the Chinese New Year, so despite the occasional surge in pollution they cause, they’re a small contributor to bad air. But unlike the major culprits—industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, coal burning—fireworks are an indulgence. Average citizens can choose to set them off or not with a freedom they can’t apply to, say, heating their homes. The coming weeks then will be a small test of the public’s commitment to cleaning up the Chinese capital’s air.