China Reduces Fireworks to Ease Pollution

As China welcomes the year of the snake, AP reports officials have urged people to tone down the lunar new year festivities. Companies have canceled banquets, and authorities have asked people to set-off fewer fireworks in an effort to promote Xi Jinping’s anti-extravagance campaign:

Xi recently called for people to be more frugal and oppose waste following a “Clear the Plate” campaign by netizens calling on restaurants to cut down food waste. His words sparked off an anti-food waste campaign in state media.

He had already launched a crackdown against government extravagance, aimed at cutting corruption by officials, which angers the general public and threatens the party’s hold on power.

In another response to the calls for people to shun extravagance and waste, China’s TV watchdog has ordered all radio and television channels to cut advertising suggesting “gift giving,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported this week. A circular issued by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television says some ads have encouraged people to give luxury watches, rare stamps and gold coins, “which has publicized incorrect values and helped create a bad social ethos,” Xinhua said. This also has to do with corruption, because it’s less obvious than giving money. These goods are easily tradable, so someone seeking a favor from an official can give him or her an expensive watch and the official can then easily sell it.

While fireworks are a major part of the festivities surrounding the Lunar New Year, which marks the beginning of the Year of the Snake, authorities in Beijing are asking the public to curb firework celebrations so as not to add to the city’s worsening air pollution, Xinhua reported Tuesday.

With a recent firework truck accident in Henan and pollution becoming a bigger problem in Beijing, fireworks have wreaked a huge amount of carnage, according to Time World:

[…] 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.

Despite warnings of pollution due to fireworks, firework sellers in Liuyang are still expecting big business, from The Los Angeles Times:

No place on Earth loves fireworks more than China. The country has been crazy for huapao since a Chinese monk named Li Tian invented firecrackers in the 5th century. An estimated 90% of the globe’s pyrotechnics are designed and produced in China, most of them here in Liuyang. The noisemakers have become an essential part of Chinese tradition. Popular as gifts, they’re used to ward off evil spirits and usher in good fortune.

The downside is the carnage. Building fires, skin burns, mangled digits and deaths come with the territory. Last week, a truck carrying fireworks exploded on an elevated highway in central Henan province, killing 10 people. The blast toppled a section of the roadway about the length of a football field. Authorities say the fireworks were unlicensed and transported by untrained handlers — part of a shadow network of illegal manufacturers and sellers that spring up during the new year crush.

The holiday period is the only time each year that major urban areas like Beijing allow fireworks in their city centers. But air quality has been so lousy lately that the Beijing Office on Fireworks and Firecrackers (yes, there is one) has urged residents to tone it down.

In Beijing, Gao Yumei, 31, and her son, Zhao Long, 14, bought $30 worth of mini-firecrackers, half a dozen roman candles and a bunch of sparklers. It’s more than she wanted to spend, but Gao said it was important to carry on the tradition.


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