Beijing air pollution

From coal to cars: Beijing moves up a gear in the war against air pollution

The Chinese capital has made big improvements in industrial emissions – now it’s time to tackle transport contamination

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 2:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 11:02pm

Environmental authorities in Beijing are shifting priority from tackling industrial emissions to curbing car pollution amid a dramatic drop in a coal-linked contaminant in the last few years.

Yu Jianhua, chief engineer of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, said the average level of sulphur dioxide (SO2) – an air pollutant linked to burning coal – had fallen more than 70 per cent from 28 grams per cubic metre 2012 to 8g/m3 last year, allowing the authorities to move on to tackle the next major source of contamination.

“Limiting coal use was our top priority over the last five years and now with the drop in sulphur dioxide levels ... vehicle emissions will be a bigger focus,” Yu said. 

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The improvement in air quality is reflected in various indices, including concentrations of PM2.5, tiny airborne particles particularly hazardous to human health. In 2013, PM2.5 levels were about 90g/m3 but by last year that had fallen to 58g/m3. The World Health Organisation considers PM2.5 levels under 25 g/m3 to be safe.

Beijing also had 226 days of “good” air quality in 2017, 50 more than in 2013. At the same time, the number of days of “serious” pollution dropped from 58 to 35. 

Zeng Jinghai, a bureau air pollution official, said the gains were in large part due to phasing out high-emission vehicles, big cuts to coal use and the closure of about 11,000 polluting companies.

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Zeng said heating companies and households were subsidised to switch from coal to natural gas or electricity, and the subsidies would continue to lock in the progress.

The exceptionally good air quality was also partly attributed to cold fronts and strong winds that dispersed pollutants this winter.

As part of that shift, the capital is drafting a new three-year clean air action plan to be launched this year.

Yu said the next phase would include “air pollution measures that relate more to people’s everyday life and be more diverse”.

He said this would not necessarily mean cuts in the number of cars on the road, saying gains could be made through other measures such as better-quality petrol.

The ban on high-emission vehicles within Beijing’s sixth ring road could also be extended to cover the whole city, Beijing mayor Chen Jining said in a municipal report last week.

While contaminants from neighbouring regions can spill over into Beijing, local sources have been big contributors to pollution in the capital over the years. In 2014, 72 per cent of the city’s pollutants came from within its limits and more than 30 per cent of those – or 20 per cent of the total – were from cars.

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Huang Wei, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, said limits on car emissions were now central to improving conditions.

“With industrial emissions contained, control of vehicle emissions will play a very big role in improving air quality,” Huang said.

This could be done in various ways, from caps on the number of cars on the road, to improving the quality of petrol and encouraging alternative ways of transport, she said.

The government could also encourage production of electric cars and make charging stations more widely available. 

“We hope the new plan will increase input in public transport and encourage residents to use clean ways of transport,” Huang said.

Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said action plans needed to factor in regional collaboration because air quality in one city could heavily affect another under certain weather conditions. 

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“It will be tough. The average PM2.5 level was 34 in Beijing in January when it was 94 in Baoding in Hebei. Those pollutants would have reached Beijing within hours if it hadn’t been for the weather,” Ma said.