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Could toxic China air kill all rural plant life?

Recent research suggests that the smog enveloping Beijing, along with six other Chinese cities that together rank as 7 of the world’s 10 most polluted, is spreading into the countryside and killing off rural vegetation.

Particularly harmful is ozone, which damages the pores on leaves responsible for regulating how much water transpires from the plant, in turn impacting water uptake and regional groundwater and surface water supplies.

“You could affect the water cycle,” said Hanqin Tian of Auburn University in Alabama, who studies the effects of climate change and China’s pollution on the country’s plants. “That’s probably not such a good thing in a changing climate and in northern China, where droughts have become a chronic problem,” he added.

China is beginning to feel the adverse effects of its rapid development, and Beijing can no longer afford to ignore the changes. On Monday, January 14, the capital of the world’s second largest economy recorded unprecedented levels of airborne particulates, which shrouded the bustling metropolis’ temples, skyscrapers and ubiquitous construction cranes while forcing thousands of residents to seek treatment for respiratory problems in local hospitals.

Particulate pollution levels soared into the 700s—on a 0-500 scale—according to readings from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s air monitoring station taken on January 14. Official measures of PM2.5, fine airborne particulates that pose the largest health risk to Beijing’s citizens, rose to as high as 993 micrograms per cubic meter on January 12. For reference, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautions against levels over 25.

Air quality in the city has steadily eroded since the 2008 Summer Olympics, when Chinese officials took pains to clean up the capital before it was placed on the world stage. Now, according to the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, the January 12 PM2.5 levels represent the highest ever recorded in Beijing.

Almost more surprising than Beijing’s record pollution levels this past week has been the relatively transparent response of the Chinese government and its state-controlled media affiliates.

The People’s Daily, the official Communist party mouthpiece, bluntly asked, “How can we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?” in a front-page editorial entitled ‘Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.’

“The seemingly never-ending haze and fog may blur our vision,” it said, “but makes us see extra clearly the urgency of pollution control and the urgency of the theory of building a socialist ecological civilization, revealed at the 18th Party Congress.” Another government controlled paper, China Daily, worried the capital was becoming better known for “Beijing Cough” than for Peking Duck or Peking Opera.

State-controlled news outlets have tended to ignore the increasingly obvious pollution problems associated with the country’s prodigious greenhouse gas emissions.

When asked if the government’s response on the issue signaled an important change for the Communist party, Dennis McNamara of Georgetown University, a specialist on China affairs, told the Science Recorder, “Only time will tell. This was a focused response, and for most part only descriptive of monitoring processes. I did not see much substantive discussion about change.”

Others have expressed surprise over the changes. “I’ve never seen such broad Chinese media coverage of air pollution,” Jeremy Goldkorn, a business consultant in Beijing who tracks the Chinese news media, told the New York Times. “From People’s Daily to China Central Television, the story is being covered thoroughly, without trying to put a positive spin on it.”

Conversations between ordinary citizens on China’s increasingly popular and politically influential microblogs have likely spurred the unusually wide coverage of what some are calling “airpocalypse”. Indeed, it would be difficult for residents and public officials to ignore the smothering pollution throughout northern China in recent days. “The apocalyptic skies above the capital this last weekend seemed to have encouraged an even greater enthusiasm for reporting this story,” remarked Goldkorn.

According to a study by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health published December 18, PM2.5 exposure contributed to an estimated 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012, causing $1.08 billion in economic losses. A separate study by the WHO suggests that long-term exposure to fine particulates raises the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, along with lung cancer.

Communist Party premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang acknowledged the problem and called for patience in a public statement, becoming the most senior official to have commented since smog levels surged January 12.

“Production, construction, consumption cannot come at the price of hurting the environment,” Li said in comments broadcast by state radio. “The current situation wasn’t created in one or two days, it accumulated over a long time. Solving this problem will also be a long-term process.”

Li served as the Communist Party chief of Liaoning and Henan provinces before being appointed vice premier in 2008, and will replace outgoing premier Wen Jiabao in March as the Communist Party’s second-highest ranking official. Li has strongly supported urbanization and industrialization as a driver of economic growth since gaining political prominence. Now he is saying that China must increase enforcement of environmental laws and remove outdated production capacity, appearing to signal a shift in his party’s stance.

Outgoing president and party chief Hu Jintao told the 18th Party Congress last November that China must address environmental problems worsened by rapid development. The report acknowledged the necessity of “ecological progress”, an issue confronting new party chief Xi Jinping and his colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee.

Contrasting sharply with strict censorship rules on “core interest” issues like Tibet and Taiwan, the official news media seemed to have a relative degree of flexibility in critiquing Beijing’s environmental policies and investigating environmental degradation.

The new government may be seeking to demonstrate a new commitment to transparency and accountability, in addition to acknowledging a problem that is literally thrust into its citizens’ faces. It may also be using the crisis to generate public support for difficult reforms as China attempts to transition toward a more sustainable development model.

Censors have also allowed gentle criticism of the government from several news sources, beyond simply acknowledging the pollution problem. China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, published a commentary entitled “Lack of Responsive Actions More Choking Than the Haze and Fog,” on Monday. The piece questioned basic economic policies and the foundations of China’s recent industrial growth: “This choking, dirty and poisonous air forces the Chinese to rethink the widespread, messy development model.”

Global Times, another newspaper that usually supports and defends the party, ran an editorial criticizing the government for its tendency to release pollution information in a “low-key way”. “In the future,” it said, “the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem.”

According to NPR’s Louisa Lim, the smog “has affected more than 30 cities in China.” “China is choking on its own breakneck development, with thousands of new cars taking to the road every day. This year, the pollution has been exacerbated by weather patterns, combined with an unusually cold spell.”

Since around 50 percent of Beijing’s air pollution is released by coal-fired power stations, cold temperatures increase particulate emissions significantly. “In the winter, we have to burn more coal to get heating,” says Zhou Rong of Greenpeace. Conditions in Beijing have been exacerbated by a weather phenomenon called an inversion that is trapping dirty particles. “The weather pattern makes the whole atmosphere very, very stable,” continued Rong, “so all the air pollution accumulates down to the ground, so we are getting higher and higher air pollution.”

The US embassy is providing real-time updates on Beijing’s air quality on its website: