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Beijing's particulate matter is 7x the recommended top level. That's 63% better than 2013!

China’s Capital Meets Own Clean-Air Standards for First Time as Olympics Approach

Beijing’s concentration of fine particulate matter has fallen 63% from 2013 levels, though it remains almost seven times the WHO-recommended levels

By Sha Hua, WSJ

Jan. 5, 2022 7:19 am ET

HONG KONG—China’s capital, Beijing, met all national air-quality standards for the first time since targets were set in 2013, city officials said, marking a milestone in China’s effort to clean up the air—just as thousands prepare to descend on the city for next month’s Winter Olympics.

Beijing residents experienced nearly four months more of clear skies in 2021 compared with 2013, said Yu Jianhua, deputy head of the city’s environmental protection bureau, at a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

The average concentration of fine particulate pollution, known as PM2.5, fell by 13% compared with a year earlier and 63% compared with 2013 levels, the official said.

Still, Beijing’s current level is nearly seven times the recommended average set out by the World Health Organization, and is roughly three to four times higher than 2020 levels in cities like Washington, D.C., and London, according to data provided by the annual air-quality report by Swiss-based air-quality technology company IQAir Group. India’s capital of Delhi ranked worst in the world for air pollution, it said.

The city’s official figures outlining Beijing’s progress toward cleaner air are in line with data recorded by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and a report by the U.N. Environment program in 2019.

The announcement comes just one month ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the neighboring city of Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, billed as the first Games where all venues will run on clean and renewable energy, according to Chinese state media.

China’s central government has used the Olympics to showcase environmental gains in the past. After Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed to stage an eco-friendly Games.

Efforts to clean up Beijing’s air also got a boost ahead of the Summer Games in 2008, when the government ordered the closure of many factories and deployed rain-summoning weather rockets in an effort to ensure blue skies during the events. The capital nevertheless found itself suffocating under a blanket of heavy pollution several times over the Olympic period, including during the Opening Ceremony.

Any gains made that summer quickly evaporated. A massive stimulus package introduced in response to the 2008 financial crisis fueled a construction boom over the next few years, which in turn contributed to a surge in pollution. Levels of particulate matter in the air rose as high as 12 times the recommended standard in China in the winter of 2012-2013, prompting widespread public demands for cleaner air.

In response, China issued a national air pollution action plan in 2013 that required key regions to cut coal consumption, control transport emissions and switch household heating from coal to cleaner natural gas.

Being the nation’s capital, Beijing has long been a focus for China’s environmental efforts. Among the country’s various provinces and regions, the municipality recorded one of the largest improvements in PM2.5 levels since 2015. It reduced fine particulate matter by 56% over that period, according to an analysis of official Chinese real-time air-quality data by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent think tank.

China’s hinterland recorded more modest air-quality improvements, with the province of Yunnan in the southwest and the northwestern region of Xinjiang only being able to reduce hazardous fine particulates by roughly 20%. The less-dramatic drop was the result of central government directives encouraging highly polluting companies, such as aluminum and copper producers, and the construction of large-scale industrial projects, to move inland from China’s more densely populated east coast.

The trend toward cleaner air has been nationwide, driven in large part by measures such as stricter air-pollution monitoring and environmental standards, according to environmental analysts. China now requires, for example, industrial facilities to install filters for harmful particles and has imposed tougher fuel standards for cars.

“It will become harder and harder to improve air quality through this route, given that the low-hanging fruit has been picked a long time ago,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Any additional air-quality improvements in China will likely require authorities to continue shifting more quickly to renewable energy from fossil fuels, while putting a stronger emphasis on further electrifying the economy, such as moving from gas-powered to electric vehicles.

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