Since declaring war on air pollution in 1998, China’s capital has fought to improve the health and environment of its citizens through a series of targeted initiatives. More than 20 years on and it seems Beijing is winning the battle. Air quality has improved substantially, and the lessons learned provide a roadmap for other cities.
In an interview for BreatheLife, Li Xiang, chief of the Air Quality Division at the Beijing Municipal Ecology and Environment Bureau, delves into the city’s strategy.
Beijing has come a long way from the smoke-filled streets shown in photographs in the 1990s. What are the methods used to control air pollution?
In recent years, especially during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), Beijing made a great effort in air pollution control, creating a new benchmark for air quality. The annual average concentration of PM2.5 decreased from 89.5 μg/m³ in 2013 to 38μg/m³ in 2020, entering the “30+” range for the first time. People’s sense of “blue sky happiness” has significantly improved and Beijing’s air pollution prevention has been included as a case study of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), providing reference for other cities around the world, especially those in developing countries.
How Beijing did this can be broken down into five points:
- We’ve significantly improved the level of green development. New energy infrastructure is low-carbon and the total consumption of coal is declining. The green transformation of industry has also eliminated more than 2,000 general manufacturing and polluting enterprises. Green optimization of vehicles has removed more than 1 million old motor vehicles from the city’s streets and promoted 400,000 new energy vehicles. The proportion of motor vehicles with China V emission standards or above is now over 60 per cent. Green space in the city has continuously expanded, with the city’s forest coverage rate reaching 44 per cent.
- Beijing has revised and strictly implemented its Regulations on the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution by establishing a comprehensive law enforcement team for ecological and environmental protection, strengthening the connection between administrative cases and criminal cases, and implementing targeted law enforcement by using hot grid technology.
- Beijing has successively issued economic policies such as the transformation of coal-fired boilers to clean ones, encouraging the purchasing of new energy vehicles, introducing an environmental protection tax, increasing financial investment at both municipal and district levels to air pollution control.
- The city has put in place strict environmental protection policies across sectors including organic chemical manufacturing, vehicles, buildings, and other industries.
- Beijing has strengthened science and technology investment to control air pollution. The integrated “space-air-ground” 3D monitoring system and the PM2.5 grid monitoring network have created a precedent for the application of miniaturized and intelligent sensor technology in the field of ecological monitoring.
These are impressive achievements. But how much pollution has Beijing actually minimized?
In 2020, the average annual concentrations of PM2.5, PM10, NO2 and SO2 were 38, 56, 29 and 4 μg/m³ respectively, down by 58%, 48%, 48% and 85% compared with 2013. According to the report “A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing” released by UNEP in 2019 and compiled by a UN -led team of international and Chinese experts, during the five-year implementation of 2013-2017 Beijing Clean Air Action Plan, control measures such as coal-fired boiler retrofit, clean transformation of civil fuel and industrial structure adjustment have significantly reduced the emission of major air pollutants in Beijing, including SO2, NOx, VOCs and primary PM2.5, whose emissions went down by 83%, 43%, 42% and 55% respectively.
The Forbidden City – Photo Pixelflake
How have the citizens of Beijing reacted to these policies?
In recent years, the air quality in Beijing has improved as has people’s sense of happiness and gain from it. Their acceptance and support for the government’s air pollution control policies have also increased significantly. According to a survey of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, citizens’ satisfaction with air quality has increased year by year, from 57% in 2017 to 85% in 2020. At the same time, citizens hold in high esteem the government’s attention to the construction of ecological civilization, as lamented by President Xi Jinping. Newly-established hotlines such as 12345 and 12369 have also played an active role to encourage citizens of Beijing to participate in environmental supervision.
Have there been any interesting government and private sector collaborations in improving air?
Taking the low nitrogen retrofit of gas-fired boilers as an example, in the process of revising Beijing’s Emission Standards for Air Pollutants from Boilers in 2013, the proposed NOx emission limit was the strictest in China and the most advanced in the world, and the technical accessibility needed to be verified. At that time, with the joint cooperation of international and domestic low nitrogen combustion technology enterprises and boiler owners, 77 sets of low nitrogen combustion demonstration projects were completed before and after, which provided technical support for the implementation of standards and upgrading transformation in the city, and also promoted the technical improvement in the field of low nitrogen combustion in China. According to statistics, at the beginning of the low nitrogen transformation program in 2016, no more than 30 manufacturers could provide low nitrogen combustion equipment, but by the end of 2017, 108 manufacturers had participated in the transformation, which greatly promoted the sector.
What is Beijing’s future ambition?
At present, although Beijing’s air quality has significantly improved, we should be aware that there is still a gap between air quality and national standards. The total amount of regional pollutant emissions still exceeds the environmental capacity. Beijing will take President Xi Jinping’s thought of ecological civilization as a guideline, adhere to the same direction, make the same level of effort to win the critical battle against pollution prevention, and adhere to the coordination of PM2.5 and O3 and greenhouse gas emission control. Beijing will strive to eliminate heavy pollution days during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. The aim is for atmospheric environmental quality to be fundamentally improved by 2035 and reach international advanced level by 2050.