Back to Back Issues Page
Blowin' in the Wind, Issue #059 Beijing Air Quality - October 1, 2008
September 30, 2008
Hello ,

Beijing Air Quality Explained

We have seen a lot about Beijing air quality in the news this year. The end of the 2008 Summer Olympics have finally pulled the spotlight away from Beijing. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the spotlight on Beijing was one of the drivers on the Chinese government efforts to address air pollution issues in the city.

Because of the media coverage in many parts of the world, we may believe Beijing is one of the most polluted cities, with air quality far worse than anything the United States has seen since the passage of the Clean Air Act.

Some have estimated that over a million Chinese citizens die each year due to complications caused by airborne particulate matter, the principle cause of air pollution in Beijing.

As part of the attempt to put a cleaner face on the Chinese Olympic Games and remote game locations like Shenyang, the Chinese government commissioned studies and satellite monitoring.

Pollution Satellite Photo

They did this by buying observation time slots on the European Space Agency's SCIAMACHY-spectrometer on board the ENVISAT program. When combined with data collected from ground stations, this gave a solid set of metrics for Beijing air pollution.

This coverage was extended to other cities as part of the Chinese Olympic program, in particular, to Shenyang, Shanghai, and Tianjin. Shenyang, because of its proximity to a number of coal-fired power plants, has well-publicized air quality problems.

China News

The pollution record in China has not been great. The nation has the power of a billion-person economy to direct to problems and a penchant for centralized control, which means that China's environmental impact can take huge swings. This can be used for improvements as well.

For example, the Three Gorges Dam has proven to have wider impact on the air and water quality in China than had been estimated. Its impact on air pollution in China stems largely from the flooding and subsequent drainage of wetlands.

With the change in water uptake levels in the central highlands, gigatonnes of topsoil have dried out in dustbowl like conditions, contributing to problematic Beijing air quality and pollution in cities on the south coast of China.

To its credit, China put a lot of effort into sprucing the place up for its Olympic close-up. They planted extensive greenswards to act as filters for particulate matter.

They also put heavy incentives on both refurbishing their public transportation in Beijing to cut down air pollution and inducing city residents to use it. Similar programs were put into place in Tianjin and Shenyang, but not Shanghai.

However, the fears of the environmental community are that both Beijing air quality and other China air pollution problems will get worse now that all the foreign athletes and media coverage have gone away. This may or may not be true, though.

Principle drivers of both are the growing affluence of the middle class in China, who use cars more and more, though they haven't moved on to Americanisms like SUVs. Coupled with contraction in the economy after the Olympic building boom, the lavish subsidies for using public transportation may go away, and other aspects of the economy may contract.

Some fear this could worsen attitudes towards environmental regulations and cut down on enforcement policies of air and water quality regulations in China. Beijing air may suffer as a result.

Back to Back Issues Page