The smog in Beijing is so bad that the government just issued its first-ever ‘red alert,’ signaling the highest possible level of health threat. The alert forces schools to close, outdoor construction to halt, and city officials have implemented measures to reduce car traffic in a stop-gap effort to alleviate the severe smog. Chinese authorities acknowledge air pollution levels have been on the rise throughout the country, but it still isn’t clear whether they will do enough to prevent it.

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Authorities decided to issue the red alert for the first time in history, but not because current smog levels are at an all-time high. This week’s pollution levels are actually lower than last week’s figures. However, since the smog is expected to linger for several days, the projected health risk is higher. China is the world’s leading producer of carbon emissions, which stem mostly from coal-powered industries and heating systems. It recently surfaced that China was burning 17 percent more coal annually than previously reported, and Beijing’s pollution problem – which can be seen from outer space – has inspired some pretty out-there attempts at solutions. Although the government has promised to ban coal burning in Beijing in just five years, critics say China is a long way from solving the air pollution problem.

Related: China’s smog kills 4,000 people every day

The ‘severe smog’ is expected to last at least three days, after which Beijing skies will likely return to their previous state of slightly less than severe smog. The second highest level in the four tier system is orange. An orange alert for pollution was issued on November 30. Another Chinese city, Nanjing, issued a red alert in December 2013, the first year the alert system was in place.


Images via Ernie/Flickr and US Embassy, Beijing