The year was 2008. Barack Obama was elected US president, Russia invaded Georgia and the global financial system collapsed. It was also the year of the Beijing Olympics. But before the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt raced to victory or any other sporting feats could take place, deadly air pollution had to be addressed.
In the run-up to the Games, Western news outlets regularly reported on the thick smog hanging over Beijing and the risks of pollution causing asthma attacks in endurance runners. In response, the authorities took decisive action, closing factories and introducing other limiting measures.
“The government began to talk much more about pollution,” recalled one Beijing resident, a 23-year-old linguistics student. “New tree-planting schemes were announced, and factories near where I lived in the suburbs were closed.” She remembers school sports lessons being moved indoors when she was growing up because of heavy smog outside. “Ahead of the Games, they introduced a policy where cars with number plates ending in odd or even numbers could only go out on given days. It might seem strict, but it is very practical, and people got used to it.”
Beijing's air quality has dramatically improvedAverage annual concentration of key pollutants (µg/m³), 2013-21Source: Beijing Municipal Ecology and Environment Bureau
Beijing is now preparing to host the winter games in February. Since 2008 the Chinese economy has more than tripled in size and annual coal consumption has increased by more than a fifth, yet air quality in Beijing continues to improve.
Data from the city’s environment bureau shows that between 2013 and 2021 average levels of larger particulates, PM2.5 and PM10, fell by 63.1 per cent and 49.1 per cent respectively. These pollutants come from vehicle emissions and cooking smoke, settle in the respiratory system, and can contribute to coughs, asthma attacks and high blood pressure. Meanwhile, levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, which come from the burning of oil and coal, and can cause smog and acid rain, dropped by 53.6 per cent and 88.7 per cent respectively.
Last year was the first on record that Beijing met China’s national air pollution standards. “The strength of pollution prevention and control is unprecedented, the effect of science and technology in pollution control is unprecedented” said the city authorities. Their data is backed up by measurements recorded at the US embassy.
Part of the reason for this success is that factories have been moved out of the city, while car number plate restrictions remain in place. Other trends that come with economic development have also made a difference: in 2005 61 per cent of Chinese homes cooked using coal or wood, which both produce significant levels of particulate matter pollution. This figure had dropped to 32 per cent in 2017, with electricity and cleaner-burning natural gas gaining more of a foothold.
Nonetheless, air pollution remains a significant problem in China as a whole, likely causing more than one million deaths a year. Beijing may have met national standards, but at least a third of China’s major cities did not, according to data accumulated by Lauri Myllyvirta from the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). And smog events remain a threat in Beijing, particularly in winter when heating demand is higher, meaning short-term actions will still be deployed in the coming weeks. A recent Bloomberg report highlights how three urea plants in northern Shanxi province have been asked to operate at 50 per cent capacity to help ensure "blue skies" during the Olympics.
“Particulate pollution levels in Beijing remain six or almost seven times higher than WHO [World Health Organisation] guidelines, even if they are not as severe as they were during the last decade,” said Myllyvirta. The Chinese national standard PM2.5 level of 35 µg/m3 still implies a 45 per cent increase in the risk of lung cancer, a 40 per cent increase in the risk of stroke and adult diabetes, and a doubling of the risk of acute lower respiratory infections. By comparison, the average PM2.5 level recorded in London is 13.3µg/m3, and the Who recommended limit is 5µg/m3.
Challenges may remain in Beijing, but as other cities such as Delhi are confronted by many of the catastrophic pollution problems that Beijing faced a decade ago, the Chinese capital may offer a model of how emissions standards and policies can make a difference.