Beijing issued its first major smog alert of the winter for the capital, triggering stringent measures to curb output of heavy industry as plunging temperatures spurred heating demand and the government launched another round of environmental inspections.
The orange alert issued late on Thursday, the second-highest on China's four-level system, comes after Beijing was reported to have made big improvements in air quality last year as industrial activity shifted away from the capital.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) warned in a statement that heavy air pollution will envelope Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and the surrounding area from January 12 until January 17.
Under an orange alert, factories that make furniture, cement and other heavy industry must limit output by between 30-50%. A list of companies in the capital affected contains more than 700 enterprises.
According to the forecast, southern areas of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, southern Shanxi, western Shandong, northern Hebei will suffer from toxic air from January 13 to January 15. On January 15, the level of air pollution is expected to surge above a level that is nominally rated the maximum on the government's scale, it said.
That would mean concentrations of small, breathable particles known as PM2.5 exceeding 250 micrograms per cubic metre, it said. Average concentration across the north in the final three months of 2017 were 71 micrograms.
Some 130 inspection teams will be sent out to make sure all emergency measures are strictly enforced, according to the MEP. The ministry has also ordered local authorities to be prepared to issue air pollution alerts.
In one example, the city of Tangshan, China's steelmaking hub, issued an orange level air pollution alert on January 12 morning effective until midnight on January 17. It was its eighth such alert since mid-November.
The capital has been largely spared the notoriously bad air that typically blankets the north during the colder winter months when people crank up the heat in their homes in part to the government's stringent anti-smog measures, including curbing factory output and banning coal burning in homes.
But this alert comes a month after the government was forced to reverse its ban on coal for heating as gas shortages left people freezing and after a prolonged bout of freezing weather across the north.
The city issued an orange alert in early November before the winter heating season started on November 15.
On January 10, the government said all 28 Chinese cities in a demanding winter anti-smog campaign met their air quality targets from October to December, the environment ministry.
However, in a separate statement late on January 11 the MEP warned of "unfavourable weather conditions" for air quality -warmer temperatures and weak winds - in January and February, keeping up pressure on local authorities to meet the politically important air quality targets.
The 28 northern cities were ordered to cut concentrations of PM2.5 by 10-25% during October 2017-March 2018. They have been curbing industrial output, thinning traffic and cracking down on coal use in a bid to limit smog build-ups.
(Writing by Tammy Yang Editing by Jessie Jia)
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