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War Against Air Pollution
Beijing's air quality gets better, and further improvements lie ahead
By Li Fangfang | NO. 3 JANUARY 18, 2018

People cycle along an avenue lined with gingko trees in Beijing on November 10, 2017 (WEI YAO)

Blue skies over Beijing in winter, which have been regarded as quite a luxury during the past several years, are less rare these days and no longer so remarkable as to cause photos of the pleasant conditions to inundate social media.

Meanwhile, whereas air purifiers often used to be out of stock in Beijing due to overwhelming demand, nowadays many remain unsold even at discounts of up to 50 percent, according to Beijing Morning Post.

Recent data concur with the experience of locals. On January 3, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau (BMEPB) published its report on addressing smog in 2017. The average concentration of PM2.5 during the year was 58 micrograms per cubic meter, the lowest such proportion in the past five years. And the number of days with good air conditions reached 226.

Beijing resident Zou Yi has continuously tracked the capital's air quality since January 2013 in his own way, providing the first-hand testimony of the improving situation. For the past five years, he has posted online each day a photograph of the sky taken from his home along with the current local PM2.5 reading.

"Judging air quality from the [individual] photos isn't very accurate, but it makes more sense if I put 365 of them together," Zou told the People's Daily.

In a series named Beijing Air Now on his Weibo account, he has published more than 1,800 of the images to date, attracting over 50 million views and generating thousands of related comments. After some netizens questioned the authenticity of the photos—specifically whether they had been doctored—Zou began uploading video clips as well. His efforts have been mentioned in TV documentaries and even cited in academic papers.

Zou published his 2017 report on Beijing's air quality both online and offline on January 4. It shows that there were 238 days on which the PM2.5 concentration was lower than the national limit of 75 micrograms per cubic meter stipulated by the ambient air quality standards China implemented in 2016. His sky photo mosaics provide strong evidence in support of the official data.

Why better?

Among Beijing locals, there has been a popular saying these years that good weather depends on heavy wind.

But for Li Xiang, Director of the Atmospheric Environment Management Division under BMEPB, it was hard work plus good air diffusion conditions that brought about the air quality improvement in 2017.

"Driven by the goal set in China's Action Plan of Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, people in the environmental protection sector spared no effort to turn items on paper into facts," Li told the Economic Daily.

The State Council released the action plan on September 12, 2013. It contained the toughest-ever measures to combat airborne pollution and featured the specific goal of reducing the concentration of fine airborne particulate matter by 25 percent in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region by the end of 2017. In particular, it required that the average PM2.5 density in Beijing had to be lowered to around 60 micrograms per cubic meter.

Beijing lowered its average PM2.5 concentration from 90 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013 to 73 micrograms per cubic meter in 2016, a decrease of over 18 percent through four years of hard work. However, to achieve the goal of 60 micrograms per cubic meter, the density had to be reduced by another 18 percent in just one year remaining.

"It's really difficult to technically lower PM2.5 from 80-100 micrograms per cubic meter, the average density for Beijing in 2013, to 35 micrograms per cubic meter, below which air quality is considered the best," Feng Yinchang, a professor with the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Nankai University in Tianjin, told Caixin.

Good meteorological conditions helped in the last two months of 2017, but not in the first two months, according to Wang Shuxiao, a professor of environmental science at Tsinghua University in Beijing. According to Wang, weather conditions have not changed much in the last five years, and generally speaking, action to tackle pollution has resulted in the improvement.

By the end of 2017, Beijing had established four gas-fired power plants, making its main urban areas coal-free. The capital also eliminated more than 2 million high-carbon-emission old vehicles, another source of PM2.5, and increased to 90 percent its percentage of clean energy.

During the past five years, six cement plants were closed and 1,992 low-end companies presenting pollution risks were removed from the city. At the same time, green methods and means were promoted in every aspect of the city's activity across both rural and urban areas.

Feng holds the opinion that one of the main achievements is that people from all walks of life—from the media to officials and the general populace—have perceived that the whole society should participate in environmental protection.

According to Lei Yu, Deputy Director of the Atmospheric Environment Institute of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, unlike previous regulations on environmental protection, which usually were initiated by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the action plan was a top-level strategic design led by the State Council.

"Meanwhile, the action plan went beyond environmental protection in its proposals. It also facilitated the adjustment of the whole economic structure in an innovative way," Lei said.

Moreover, since Beijing is surrounded by heavy industry pollution zones rooted in the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong, only addressing Beijing's air pollution could be in vain, reported Caixin.

Following the action plan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection partnered Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, published the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Enhanced Plan of Prevention and Control of Air Pollution (2016-17) in June 2016 and expanded the scope further by publishing another work plan together with six provinces and municipalities in February 2017.

Future plan

The goals of the original action plan were all achieved by the end of 2017 although some side effects in social and economic development occurred.

The public had to put up with the inconvenience of being allowed to use their cars only every other day in several provinces. Companies in heavy industries were ordered to temporarily limit their production or shut down permanently, resulting in large losses.

Fortunately, the restriction on production brought a rise in steel prices, which could offset some companies' losses. According to a forecast from the China Chamber of Commerce for Metallurgical Enterprises, steel and iron prices will continue to rise in the first quarter of 2018.

However, from the perspective of the whole economy and society, the price rises in these raw materials will eventually lead to increased production costs across all sectors.

"Limiting production and even shutting down do no good for motivating companies [to increase their] technical innovation capability," said Ma Zhong, Dean of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Ma suggested that more economic measures and fewer government orders should be applied in the next action plan. Environmental tax can be levied in such a way as to encourage companies to adopt less-polluting production methods.

Li Xiang said that in 2018, Beijing will continue to focus on tackling PM2.5 pollution. At the same time, the capital will adopt more legal and economic measures to deal with pollutants, supported by leading-edge sci-tech innovation and government strategic plans.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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