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Beijing says neigh to fireworks as Year of The Horse begins

Mindful of its reputation for polluted skies, the Beijing city government is trying to rein in fireworks if they contribute to severe smog during the forthcoming lunar new year.

It's a tall order for a city that joyfully lights up the sky with explosions to ring in the new year and where a set of 19 "Wind of China" skyrockets that explode 10 metres into the air can be bought at street stalls for 38 yuan ($6.30).

(Read more: China's coal use slated to jump 37% by 2020)

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But choking pollution along the North China plain has tarnished Beijing's image, with episodes such as the 2013 "airpocalypse" making headlines around the world. Across China, the new found ability to monitor hourly air quality updates on cell phones has made people much more conscious of the quality of the air they breathe.

"To maintain good air quality and build a Beautiful Beijing together, we suggest you set off fewer fireworks or don't set them off at all. If the air pollution reaches the orange or red level, fireworks are forbidden. Thank you for your understanding, support and co-operation," read a message from the city government sent to millions of cell phones in the city. Fireworks could be heard sputtering in the chilly evening even as the message went out.

Millions of firecrackers, Roman Candles and skyrockets build up to a crescendo of bangs and roars at midnight on Lunar New Year's eve, which falls on Thursday this year. Pollution spiked well beyond hazardous levels and visibility dropped to nearly zero during a foggy New Year's eve in Beijing two years ago.

(Read more: China's smog threatens health of global coal projects)

Many Chinese cities forbade fireworks altogether in the 1990s, but dropped the prohibition after historic residential neighborhoods were bulldozed for massive urban development schemes, leaving concrete skyscrapers that are far less likely to catch fire.

Nonetheless, firecrackers usually cause dozens of fires and injuries nationwide at new year. Most famously, a building attached to the CCTV tower in the centre of Beijing was gutted at the end of the New Year holiday in 2009, thanks to a display of powerful fireworks set off by the state television broadcaster.

Attendants at a stall in the centre of Beijing assured the Financial Times on Wednesday that their fireworks were "certified less polluting", but scoffed at the idea that sales would suffer. "Setting off fireworks for new year is a Chinese tradition. We invented them, in the Song Dynasty," said one salesman, before recommending a box of 120 chrysanthemum-type rockets for a mere 1,080 yuan ($180).

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In the autumn, the Chinese government released a national pollution plan that calls for less coal use near bigger and wealthier population centres such as Beijing, the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze Delta, but also encourages more coal projects in the arid west. The city of Beijing has gone a step further with measures to control car use and close schools if pollution exceeds limits for several days running.

"You have pollution even if you don't have fireworks," said fireworks salesman Wang Li, before rattling off the causes of Chinese air pollution, such as car exhaust, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from heavy industry and power plants, and the charcoal briquettes used to heat homes in poor neighborhoods. "Maybe some environmentalists won't set them off themselves but they will still enjoy watching everyone else's."