MY aunt once told me about life in the coal-producing north of England during the 1960s. Coal mining in places like Newcastle caused air pollution so bad that when you had a cold in winter and blew your nose, it turned your handkerchief black.
I thought nothing of it until the same thing happened to me on a recent trip to Shanghai. From the day we arrived until we left eight days later, the air in Shanghai -- and the surrounding towns we visited-- was full of smog.
China's pollution today is not so much from mining as from coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, their construction frenzy and chronic traffic congestion. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that air quality had been declining nationwide thanks largely to a car boom and surge in heavy industry.
A World Bank study found that China is home to 16 of the 20 worst cities for air quality. Pollution was so bad that the authorities had to halve the number of cars on Beijing's roads each day in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
China's steps to improve Beijing's air quality included closing factories and allowing cars on the roads only every other day depending on even-odd registration numbers, taking half of Beijing's 3.3 million vehicles off the roads.
Chemical plants, power stations and foundries that could continue to operate had to cut emissions by 30 per cent and construction in the capital was halted.
In addition, 300,000 aging industrial trucks -- many of which pollute heavily and operate only at night -- were banned. Beijing added cleaner buses to its public transportation system and in 2009 was the city with the most natural gas buses in the world -- 4,000. The number was expected to increase to 5,000 this year.
Beijing has also moved most high polluting industries out of the area and increased its forest coverage to 36.5 per cent. They have a very efficient and affordable public transport system -- Beijing's 22,000 buses cost only one renminbi (RM0.45 sen) anywhere in the city and passengers can use the entire 200km Beijing metro for just two renminbi a ride.
Beijing hopes that the attractive prices would discourage people from using cars.
In mid-2009, the Beijing Transportation Commission announced a green public transportation initiative for 2009-2015 which included:
DAILY public transportation (buses and subways) capacity to accommodate 25 million passenger-trips by 2015, including 15 million by buses and 10 million by subway; 45 per cent of passenger trips in the Beijing metro area to be by public transportation.
OTHER measures include locating public transportation stops such that 90 per cent of the passengers in the metro area need only walk less than 500m to reach one.
Petrol stations in Beijing are located along the outer ring roads, making it less convenient to pump petrol.
We could not see a single petrol station in the centre of Beijing while we were there. The fact that air quality in Beijing was much better than in Shanghai on the recent trip tells me that Beijing's policies to reduce air pollution still work -- on certain blue sky days anyway.
While I was glad to return to Malaysia, it was to a hazy Kuala Lumpur. And we have to live with it for several months each year.
Accumulated effects over the years surely have had an impact on our health.
Several months of cleaner air demonstrated improved heart health of athletes in Beijing before and after the Olympics according to a University of Southern California study. Junfeng Zhang, one of the study authors, suggested greater use of public transportation and not going outdoors when levels of air pollution are high.
While our Department of Environment imposes a ban on open burning during months with the worst haze and a penalty of up to five years imprisonment or maximum fine of RM500,000 or both upon conviction, it is not enough. Our air quality still leaves a lot to be desired.
Certain quarters continue to ignore the ban every year. I'm not just talking about factories, individuals in taman do it too. Then there are natural fires that start due to the extremely hot and dry conditions.
Of course, it doesn't help that neighbouring Indonesia continues to clear land using open burning. Sure, we don't have as much heavy industry or polluting coal-fired power plants as in China.
Even if it takes years before we get to China's level of air pollution, do we want to wait until our air quality is so bad as to cause critical illnesses before we do something about it?
Maybe countries in Southeast Asia that experience the haze yearly can learn a thing or two from China's environmental policies to cut air pollution.