(Excerpt from documentary 'Float' plays; footage courtesy Joshua Frank/China File)
JOSHUA FRANK, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: This is Beijing seen from a kite, cloaked in a thick grey haze.
HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: Kite enthusiasts in Beijing often gather near one of the few remaining ancient city walls. Last summer they used their kites to monitor the quality of Beijing's air by attaching cheap homemade sensors to them. This was done under the guidance of two American graduate students and turned into a documentary by one of their friends.
XIAOWEI WANG, STUDENT: The way sensors work is that they have a chemical element in them that reacts to a specific pollutant, for example, like CO, or ozone, things like that, and as it reacts, it changes the conductivity. So basically, what you want to know is how much electricity is flowing through this sensor.
HUEY FERN TAY: Xiaowei Wang and Deren Guler have just finished compiling their data into a book. But missing from the numbers detailing various pollutants also one very important figure that's been used by the American Embassy in Beijing for the past five years to gauge just how dirty air is. This is known as PM2.5, harmful particles 30 times thinner than the human hair that can become lodged in a person's lungs.
But in China these figures had previously been kept from the public. The Chinese government only starts publishing these figures last January after bowing to public pressure for more transparency.
Pollution is always one of the issues raised at China's annual full session of Parliament, the National People's Congress. This year the issue has been at the forefront because of the smog that affected northern China for much of January.
The tone was set the moment outgoing premier Wen Jiabao cautioned, yet again, that more care needed to be given to the country's ailing environment.
WEN JIABO, CHINESE PREMIER (translation): In response to people's expectations of having a good living environment, we should greatly strengthen ecological improvement, environmental protection. The state of the ecological environment affects the level of people's well being and also posterity and the future of our nation.
HUEY FERN TAY: From then on the extreme episode was used as an opportunity for provincial governments like Xinjiang to tout their green credentials at the NPC.
HUANG WEI, VICE CHAIRMAN, XINJIANG GOVERNMENT (Translation): We used to be one of the most severely polluted cities in China, but last year the government in the autonomous region supported switching from coal to natural gas. The air quality in the provincial capital of Urumqi has improved significantly this winter.
HUEY FERN TAY: The headline-making smog has succeeded in accelerating changes that were previously resisted by influential players like the country's energy giants. The government has ordered that fuel, for example, will need to be more environmentally friendly by 2017, with companies like China Petroleum, the country's largest energy company, having to spend around $2.4 billion upgrading its refineries.
This may be controversial, however, as some of the increased costs may be passed on by the energy giants to consumers.
DR FENG AN, INNOVATION CENTRE FOR ENERGY AND TRANSPORTATION: Yeah, I think it is pretty much the question of priorities. I think cost has never been the real issue because they have so much revenues, I think that upgrading of the refineries is only cost a fraction of what their revenues. That's never been the real issue. It is put them on a much lower priority. They don't see that as important.
HUEY FERN TAY: There are also concerns over how much of a priority moves such as pricing carbon is. A carbon tax is being considered by the government but has made little progress because it means competition for the pilot emissions trading scheme.
But have all these measures come a little too late for China's congested capital?
DR FENG AN: So if you have implemented the clean fields and the clean cars three years earlier, so you can reduce, you can, you know, basically cut emissions 50, 60 per cent from today's levels. So that's the penalty you pay for delaying to make decisions.
HUEY FERN TAY: The effects of pollution might be obvious, but shifting attitudes will be an immense task for a China that's at the beginning of a new dawn.