How did Beijing become one of China’s top cities for air quality?
The capital reported less pollution in December but that does not mean it can breathe easy
Beijing’s unlikely rise to become one of China’s top 10 cities for air quality last month shows how political will and nature can both make a difference to pollution, according to environmental experts.
The capital was ranked ninth of 74 Chinese cities in air quality in December, one spot above Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said last week.
Beijing’s placing was up from 16th in November and 58th in November 2016. Figures for December 2016 were not available.
Haikou, capital city of Hainan province in the south, remained the city with the cleanest air in December.
Northern China is home to most of the country’s biggest steel producers and is often shrouded in heavy smog in winter, thanks also to the widespread usage of coal for heating.
A ministry spokesman gave credit for the improvement in Beijing to a half-year campaign against polluters launched in October.
In August, the ministry pledged to cut average concentrations of breathable and toxic airborne particles known as PM2.5 by more than 15 per cent year on year in 28 northern cities between October and March. Cadres would be held responsible if pollution reached alarming levels, it said.
The ministry said on Friday that six cities in northern China reported falls in PM2.5 of at least 40 per cent compared with a year earlier, including Beijing where the average PM2.5 level dropped by two-thirds.
Environmental specialists said the improvement in the capital was a result of Beijing’s crackdown on polluters within the city and around its edge, as well a sustained north wind which kept pollutants at bay. But less strict enforcement and the same north winds meant some cities downwind of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area reported worse air quality this winter.
Lei Yu, from the ministry’s Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, said: “We are still analysing how much of this is brought by the anti-pollution efforts. It won’t mean much if it doesn’t last.”
Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said Beijing and its surrounding areas had gone to great lengths to improve conditions, including switching heating systems to natural gas, banning vehicles that did not meet emission standards and tackling dust on construction sites.
“The weather had helped a lot this winter but Beijing’s efforts in the last five years have paid off, too,” he said.
The ministry sent 5,600 inspectors to more than two dozen cities across the north last year to make sure they played by the rules.
But while conditions improved in northern regions, they worsened in the Yangtze River Delta. There, too, environment and enforcement played a role, Ma said.
“Southern cities traditionally have more favourable weather. They are not as forceful om shutting down polluting industries,” he said.
“The biggest emissions came from Henan, Hebei and Shandong, and the smog was blown south.
“It will take more work if Beijing is to retain its ranking in the long term.”
In a report released earlier this month, Greenpeace put Beijing’s progress down to “exceptionally favourable weather” and strict environmental inspections to enforce curbs on industrial production, a reduction in the use of cars, and a small-scale ban on coal burning.
The Greenpeace report also pointed to the growing prominence of ozone as a major air pollutant, even overtaking PM2.5 is some areas.