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Cool autumn temperatures are moving into Northeast China. And Sunday, many cities turned on their coal-fired heating systems for the first time this season. This contributed to severe air pollution, which has largely shut down Harbin, a city of 11 million people. China has recently announced new regulations aimed at cutting smog and mitigating its deadly effect on citizens.
But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, any fundamental solution seems a long way off.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Schools, highways and airports remain closed for a second day in the city of Harbin. State television showed images of cars with flashing hazard lights and pedestrians wearing face masks, appearing and disappearing in a thick grey miasma. A mix of soot, dust and other tiny particles, that get into people's lungs, was recorded at levels as high as 60 times the concentration of the World Health Organization considers safe.
Many officials are blaming this emergency in part on the weather. Fang Li, the vice director of Beijing's Environmental Protection Agency, spoke at a press conference in the capital.
FANG LI: (Through translator) The heavy pollution in Harbin is due to weather conditions. We have noticed that the entire northeastern region is shrouded in heavy fog. Under these conditions, it's not easy for these pollutants to dissipate.
KUHN: Indeed, there has been no strong winds and heavy rain to lower wash the manmade pollution away. Today, Fang outlined the Chinese capital's new plan for dealing with pollution emergencies. After three days of heavy pollution, schools will close; factories will scale back production; and private cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternating days, depending on their license plates.
LI: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: And when it really gets smoggy, Fang added, the capital will also ban fireworks and barbecues.
Before last year, China did not disclose detailed data about air pollution. The Chinese language did not even have a word for smog until very recently. Wang Jingjing is vice director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. She displays a map which shows that most of the pollution in China comes from industry.
WANG JINGJING: (Through translator) We can see that there are more than 4,100 major sources of air pollution. These sources emit more than 65 percent of all the sulfur dioxide, nitrides and particulate matter.
KUHN: Wang welcomes a series of recently announced government plans to tackle pollution. Last month, China announced a plan to cut its coal consumption to below 65 percent of primary energy use by 2017 - a reduction of less than 2 percent in five years. She says China's government is determined to avoid the mistakes the West made when it industrialized.
JINGJING: (Through translator) We've seen the historical experiences and lessons that have come before. We don't want to take that path. We must control the pollution beforehand, instead of cleaning up afterwards.
KUHN: Whatever is learned from the West's experienced, it seems clear that China already faces a lengthy process of cleaning up its air, land and water.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.