Breathing, a sign of relief in Beijing!

A view shows the city's skyline from the Beijing Yintai Centre building at sunset in Beijing in this file photo. Picture: Reuters / Jason Lee

A view shows the city's skyline from the Beijing Yintai Centre building at sunset in Beijing in this file photo. Picture: Reuters / Jason Lee

Published Jul 1, 2023


By Dr Farhana Paruk

The air was heavy with anticipation as I disembarked at Beijing International Airport. This was 2007 and I was on my first trip to China.

Beijing, the city of culture, diplomacy, finance and politics, evoked decades of idealised profiling. But in a blink of a blurred eye, the air of expectation was quickly replaced by a suffocating, wheeze-inducing sulphuric, hazy grayness. This was not Beijing of the blue skies, but Beijing of the teary eyes. The pollution capital of China!

China has had a pollution problem since the 1950s, when unprecedented industrialisation saw a rapid increase in the number of motorised vehicles, systematic population growth and expanding manufacturing outputs. The natural topography and seasonal weather also contributed to the crisis.

Beijing is teeming with coal plants and other factories that spew out large amounts of a pollutant called PM 2.5. The miniscule particle is found in soot, smoke and dust and gets lodged in the lungs, leading to asthma and chronic lung disease.

Located on the outskirts of Beijing these factories relied on outdated and inefficient technologies.

The skyline of Beijing's central business area is obscured as a dust storm hits Beijing, China May 4, 2017. Picture: Reuters / Jason Lee

The high levels of pollution remained trapped in the city bowl as it is surrounded by mountains and during spring and summer, when temperature and humidity levels rise, winds contribute to the smog by carrying pollutants from industrialised southern regions. In addition these emissions have led to hundreds of flight cancellations and frequent road closures due to low visibility levels.

With this rapid wealth accumulation motor vehicles became more affordable to upwardly mobile individuals. Motorised vehicles contributed to nearly 70% of the city’s air pollution.

Population growth has been another contributing factor to extensive pollution. Beijing’s population had swelled from 11 million to 16 million in just 7 years, and has doubled over the past century.

I have made frequent trips to China since 2007, with only a hiatus during the pandemic years, but only during my last visit two weeks ago, have I noticed a drastic change in the atmospheric conditions in the country as a whole, and more specifically Beijing.

How did China manage to turn things around so quickly?

From 2013 to 2017, fine particle levels in Beijing and the surrounding region fell by around 35%. This is a remarkable feat and was achieved because of the state’s investment of resources and President Xi Jinping’s vision of an Ecological Civilisation. The “wars on pollution control” launched by the State Council, revamped Air Quality Law, stricter penalties for non-compliance, domestic air action plans, and Beijing’s own innovative actions. While it was a long journey, there are many lessons learnt. It is a lesson for many developed countries who are grappling with their own challenges.

So successful was China’s policies, they were the subject of the United Nations Environment Programme Report in 2019, “A Review of 20 Years: Air Pollution Control in Beijing”, to highlight the country’s remarkable path.

Key to the success, was the role of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment which drove the “war against pollution” since 2013.

The Air Quality Management (AQM) system has taken shape over 20 years and it has been backed by comprehensive legislation and enforcement mechanism; systematic planning; robust monitoring capacity, and high levels of public environmental awareness. Combining advanced technologies like high resolution satellite remote sensing and laser radar, a new generation of integrated AQM network was established.

Beijing also provided subsidies, fees and other financial practices, to generate economic incentives for the effective implementation of various measures.

Focusing on power plants, coal-fired boilers and residential coal use, Beijing city authorities, were able to regulate and manage the pollution sources.

The city has further implemented a new energy plan, a “coal-to-gas” policy since 2005 that has reduced coal combustion by nearly 11 million tons by 2017. High-efficiency terminal treatment facilities were continuously renovated and ultra-low emission standards were enforced during this period.

China Beijing Image by Jeremy Zhu from Pixabay

On my first trip, the notion of electric vehicles on the streets of Beijing seemed like a fantasy. As I was driven around Beijing and other cities recently, the low hum of an electric car is almost inaudible. No more gas-guzzling, exhaust belching fumes from cars of a different era! This was China entering the age of Elon Musk.

Focusing on new vehicles and fuel quality, Beijing has implemented a series of local emission standards and comprehensive control measures; as well as strengthened traffic management and economic incentives continuously.

More importantly, a large scale public transport system has been built to allow gradual formation of a green and low-carbon in-city travel habit by the people.

Prior to the introduction of these stringent anti-pollution policies, it is reported that there were 1.6 million deaths a year, or about 4,000 people a day. Today the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2 years longer and residents of Beijing can expect to live about 4 years longer.

According to the UN, China’s success in reducing pollution accounts for more than three quarters of the global decline since 2013.

The massive greening of the city, its parks, sidewalks and public spaces, brings an equilibrium and an intrinsic calmness in the eternal contestation between man and nature. It should now turn its attention to combat the ever-increasing problem of plastic pollution!

Beijing of the blue skies is a sight to behold. It is an indication of what sustained, pragmatic and focussed government policies can achieve. The delicate relationship between humanity and nature was for a time put on the backburners, but now China has realised its obligations to its people and there is no turning back.

* Dr Paruk is a specialist in China-Africa relations and has visited China on numerous occasions. She recently returned from a 10 day visit to the country.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.