Spring Festival Firecrackers Cause Pollution Concerns in Beijing

China’s tradition of setting off fireworks to celebrate the Spring Festival has caused concerns over rising pollution levels in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. The fireworks and firecrackers heard consistently throughout the Spring Festival period, which began on January 27 this year, have caused the amount of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air to rise to hazardous levels in Beijing, where the Air Quality Index (AQI) surpassed 600 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter. Levels above 300 are considered hazardous, and doctors discourage any kind of outdoor exertion in these conditions.

Beijing’s pollution problem has gone on for years and typically draws special attention in winter when coal plants are most active to sate heating demands. Pollution in Beijing most recently reentered the international spotlight when Beijing’s city government declared a pollution-related red alert on December 8, followed by a second red alert on December 18. These marked the first times that Beijing has issued red alerts since it implemented a four-tier alert system in 2012 following public criticism of the city’s handling of pollution relief efforts. Following the red alert declaration, the city closed public schools, halted outdoor construction, and restricted the number of cars allowed to drive. Images of smog rolling into the city in early January went viral globally.

Given the recent increase in public and government-level concerns over pollution levels in Beijing, the popular tradition of lighting fireworks during the Chinese New Year has come under fire. The Beijing city government and state-owned media outlets seemed optimistic about pollution during the New Year. The city reduced the number of shops permitted to sell fireworks by nearly 30 percent and found that firework sales decreased nearly five percent by Chinese New Year’s Eve. In addition, state-owned media outlet Xinhua conducted a poll in Beijing and found that 83 percent of citizens would not light firecrackers this year, many out of concerns over pollution.

However, these reports clashed with realities on the street and in the air. Citizens had only to listen out their windows or walk around to hear non-stop fireworks going off. In the Chaoyang neighborhood of Beijing, partakers in the tradition joyfully stopped cars as their fireworks went off, lighting up the city’s sky while also visibly polluting the air. What might have been mistaken in other parts of the world for incessant gunshots was merely the enthusiastic celebration of a traditional holiday, still considered China’s most important.

A retired resident of Chaoyang participated in the lighting of fireworks with her husband and exchange students from the United States.

“It’s a tradition,” she said during celebrations on Chinese New Year’s Eve. “The government tries to restrict the sale of fireworks, and there’s no doubt they cause pollution, but it’s a part of the holiday.”

Hours later, the AQI peaked at 647, more than double levels considered hazardous and largely surpassing Beijing’s self-imposed limit of 500. The following morning, AQI levels still topped 500, but have since fallen back down to mostly healthy levels as of January 29. Although the fireworks can doubtless be tied to rising pollution levels in the short-term surrounding the Spring Festival, the government’s emphasis on this correlation seems to be disproportionate. In the long term, preventing citizens from lighting fireworks will not prevent pollution, especially since many cities forbid their use outside the four days of celebration of the Spring Festival. Outside of Chinese New Year, citizens will continue to await regulations on coal plants, among other instigators, to meaningfully reduce pollution in Beijing and across China.