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China begins to admit 'fog' is really smog

Chinese are growing more outspoken about the "fog," now accurately calling it "smog," covering cities like Beijing.

BEIJING—While China’s chief climate negotiator is getting rock star treatment at the Durban climate summit this week, his peers back in the capital are suffering a third straight day of foul air.

As a leading Canadian newspaper put it, China provided “the few glimmers of hope at the stalled negotiations” in Durban, where "photographers and television journalists swarmed around the chief Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, as he entered a news conference on Monday to announce his list of conditions for considering a legally binding treaty on carbon emissions after 2020."

It seems that despite being the world's biggest carbon emitter, China could be the key to a deal on a legally binding agreement to reduce emissions.

However, not many glimmers of hope could be spotted back home.

From the China Daily website

A grid image posted on the China Daily newspaper showing the dramatic changes in air quality in Beijing in the past four days.

A persistent 'fog'
The Chinese state-run print media all ran headline stories Tuesday morning on the persistent "fog" that has blanketed Beijing and parts of the country’s northeast since the weekend. (See video above of the "hazardous" level of smog on Monday).

Much of the coverage focused on the hundreds of flights cancelled at the Beijing Capital International airport—the world’s second busiest hub—or the rising and very vocal concerns about air pollution.  Some local reports referred to sales of air filter masks and air filter machines spiking in the past week.

Still more reports tried to cast the air pollution issue as one of sovereignty.  "The heavy fog or smog that has shrouded Beijing in the past couple of days has triggered a renewed round of debate over the different air pollution standards applied by China and the United States," said an opinion piece in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper with a strong nationalist overtone.

But at least these same newspapers are now calling it "smog" rather than "fog," as they were just a day ago.  The China Daily, another state-run newspaper, ran a headline on page 3 crying, "Exposure to smog is severe hazard."  Later in the day, the paper’s web site posted four stark images of the same location showing changes in air visibility. (See photo above). The images are pretty staggering.

Only 13 days of 'good' air this year so far

And as we write this, the ever-trusty and ever-reliable @BeijingAir Twitter feed has been down five hours, prompting followers to wonder whether the pollution has finally gotten to the air quality index monitor that lives on top of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Post by @TomVandeWeghe

An image of an iPhone app circulating on Twitter this afternoon, showing the @BeijingAir monitor out of commission.

A sobering analysis of the @BeijingAir feed can be found in this post by China Dialogue, which notes that the improvements in air quality claimed by officials at the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau "are due to irregularities in the monitoring and reporting of air quality – and not to less polluted air."

Moreover, based on the analysis using the @BeijingAir data, this year there have only been 13 days of "good" air quality. 

Buried further amidst the quantitative data was one more alarming point: "…if Beijing’s fine particulate concentration even reached the polluted levels of Los Angeles, life expectancy may increase by over five years."

We at NBC News Beijing are trying to claw back a few months to our life span.  We have just taken delivery of two air filter machines for the bureau.