Chinese authorities in Beijing issued their first-ever red alert for smog on Monday, telling schools to close, limiting production at factories and cutting vehicular traffic by half. A red alert is the highest-level warning on China’s four-tier pollution alert system launched two years ago, and it means weather forecasters are projecting severe smog in Beijing for at least three days in a row.

Dense Smog In China's Beijing Causes "Red Alert"

More on severe smog in Beijing

A message posted on the website of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau noted that the alert had been issued to “protect public health and reduce levels of heavy air pollution.”

Together with the closing of schools and limiting cars registered in the city to driving every other day, many other regulations on businesses and private individuals also kick in to try to reduce the dust and other particulate matter in 23-million strong Beijing. Local authorities also note that extra subway trains and buses are being added to most routes to minimize the strain on public transport.

According to pollution experts, Readings of PM2.5 particles climbed toward 300 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday and are expected to continue rising before the air begins to improve with the arrival of a cold front on Thursday. The World Health Organization designates the safe level for PM2.5 particles at 25.

Beijing already had a major smog episode last week, where PM2.5 levels in some areas of the city hit dangerously high levels of 976 micrograms. Locals also point out that smog in Beijing was also bad throughout most of November because of high power demand due to very cold weather.

2015 was actually a relatively good year for smog in Beijing, as pollution in the capital was actually slightly lower on average in the first 10 months of the year compared to 2014. Weather experts note that extremely dense fog visible from space leads to the closure of Beijing schools and the cancelling of outdoor activities. In a few of the worst episodes of smog in Beijing, highways have even been closed due to dangerously poor visibility.

The pollution in China has also led to major health effects for the population. Atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute published research earlier this year estimating that 1.4 million people a year end up dying early due to air pollution in China. Tens of millions more suffer are suffering adverse health effects due to the growing pollution problem in China.

Coal used for power production is largest source of pollution in China

Analysts point out that the majority of the pollution in China is caused by coal-fired power plants, with vehicle emissions and construction and factories also being major contributors to the problem. China has already announced plans for a significant upgrade of its coal power plants over the next five years to try and get a grip on the pollution problem. Chinese authorities claim their plans will lead to emissions peaking close to 2030 and then beginning to drop off.

Of note, despite tightening  emissions standards and making large investments made in solar, wind and renewable energy, the Middle Kingdom still uses coal to produce more than 60% of its total power needs.