Thursday, 3 April 2014

Nine million bicycles

Photo: Clive Simpson
The first time I stepped onto the pavements of Beijing, the feted capital of the People's Republic of China, it felt more like nine million cars than nine million bicycles.

With over 20 million people, it is one of the most populous and ancient cities in the world, renowned for opulent palaces, temples, gardens, tombs, walls and fancy gates, as well as art treasures and universities.

It is headquarters to most of China's largest state-owned companies and a major hub for the national highway, expressway, railway and high-speed rail networks. Beijing's international airport is the second busiest in the world by passenger traffic.

For my week-long visit in October 2013 this enormous and spectacular city was also host to a number of major conferences, including the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) which I was reporting on for one of the host organisations, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF).


Beijing is certainly enormous and spectacular. In the northern quarter lie a cluster of westernised hotels, a stone's throw from the sprawling China National Conference Centre (CNCC) and the Olympic park with it's Bird's nest stadium and Cube' swimming pool.

Further south is the ancient city centre and the historic Forbidden City, while to the North, the historic Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

But it is air pollution that piques my interest today - not only the appalling and choking smogs that descend ever more frequently on this city but now disturbingly close to home (Paris) and, very much closer to home, (London). What are we to make of this?

Smog has long been a problem in Beijing. Whilst perhaps better than it was in the past now that much of the city's heavy industry has been relocated, it remains a problem. In fact, most of the smog is now caused by vehicle traffic.

During my stay the smog and pollution were so bad on at least two days that the effects - stinging eyes and uncomfortable breathing - were noticeable after only a few minutes in the open.

The notion that this was a thing restricted to far off countries, or certainly something of the past in the UK, has certainly been dispelled this spring.

In March recorded levels of pollution in Paris were higher than in many of the world's most notoriously polluted cities, including Beijing.

Calm and warm spring days left a chemical soup hanging above the City of Light, choking the famous boulevards and leading the French government to implement an alternating driving ban and offer free public transport for a time.


For the past few days I too have been living in smog land (otherwise known as East Anglia) as record levels of air pollution plagued many parts of the UK.

Domestic pollution (largely nitrogen dioxide originating in traffic fumes) and emissions from continental Europe, combined with dust from the Sahara and low south-easterly winds, caused air quality and visibility to plummet.

The smog-like conditions of this week have shown that the UK is far from immune.

Even before this latest episode the country faces fines of up to £300m a year after the European commission launched legal proceedings against the government for failing to reduce ‘excessive’ levels of nitrogen dioxide despite 15 years of warnings.


Other European countries have also failed to meet the air quality directive that should have been adopted in 2008 but the EU environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, has singled Britain out for its 'persistent breaches'.

According to the commission, air pollution limits are regularly exceeded in 16 zones across the UK - Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the east, the south-east, the east Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the west Midlands, and the north-east.

Air pollution itself is currently attributed to 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and the World Health Organisation has confirmed that it can also cause cancer.

Like climate change - and there would appear to be a natural connection - this is a global problem and one that won’t be blown away by any amount of political hot air. Real action is called for.

The blog title is taken from ‘Nine Million Bicycles’,a song written and produced by Mike Batt for the singer Katie Melua's second album, ‘Piece by Piece’. It was released as the album's first single in September 2005 and reached number five in the UK Singles Chart. According to Melua, the inspiration for the song came during a visit to Beijing with Batt after their interpreter showed them around the city and stated there were supposedly nine million bicycles in the city. The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here

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