Beijing breathes easier as war on smog clears skies

Cyclists last month pass Beijing’s Zhengyangmen gate. The city’s winter air is usually marked by bouts of smog but anti-pollution measures have led to clearer skies, according to Greenpeace research © Bloomberg

Drastic measures to cut pollution in the areas around Beijing during the final months of 2017 have led to unusually clear air in the capital, offsetting the effect of a nationwide economic recovery, according to new data.

Authorities closed factories and forbade residents in provinces neighbouring Beijing from using coal to heat their homes during winter, in a last-ditch effort to meet emissions-cutting targets for 2017.

Beijing also ejected hundreds of thousands of migrants workers and razed several neighbourhoods ringing the city. Poor-quality coal briquettes used to heat villages and slum neighbourhoods account for half of coal consumption in Beijing and surrounding regions in the winter.

As a result, emissions of PM2.5 — a measure of tiny particulates in the air — fell 33 per cent in the region around Beijing during the final quarter of 2017 compared with the same period the previous year, according to a study by Greenpeace, the campaign group. The fall came despite recovering growth and higher energy usage.

But nationally, PM2.5 levels fell just 4.5 per cent in 2017 compared with 2016, as much polluting activity was merely shifted elsewhere in China. Other measures to reduce particulates in the air included placing covers on construction sites and fuel restrictions.

The government pulled out the stops to meet its targets because 2017 was the last of a five-year anti-pollution campaign, noted Yang Fuqiang, senior adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

New targets for upcoming years are expected to be even stricter, he said, adding: “The government has realised that it can achieve good results as long as it is devoted to solving the problem.”

China's drive to reduce pollution. Maps showing Chinese air quality improved, particularly in provinces around Beijing, but Ozone readings worsened

Before the implementation of drastic measures to lower industrial pollution, PM2.5 levels in the region surrounding Beijing had increased 6 per cent year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2017.

The clearer air has been noticeable in Beijing, despite popular outrage at the sudden and sometimes violent eviction of migrants. Normally the Beijing winter is marked by bouts of choking smog.

“I’ve never seen Beijing like this!” said French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday at the end of a three-day state visit to China. He praised Beijing’s action to close its factories: “It shows they have a capacity that is rapid, even brutal.”

Mr Macron has hailed China’s support of the Paris accord in which nations pledged measures to limit emissions and avert climate change. China expects its carbon emissions to grow until 2030.

A woman in Beijing wears a mask to protect herself from last winter’s pollution © AP

However, in 2012 it revealed a complex national plan to wean industry in the north China plain off coal, and shift factories on to the national power grid.

But Beijing’s action to eliminate coal-burning sources, including industrial boilers and residential heating stoves, was not matched by the rollout of new gas infrastructure. 

This resulted in a spike in gas prices and the government responded by limiting gas use throughout central China before relenting and allowing rural residents to heat their homes with coal.

The government has now offered additional incentives, including loans from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to extend the natural gas infrastructure. The anti-pollution plan is expected to increase China’s gas use significantly over the long term.

Twitter: @HornbyLucy

This post originally appeared on Financial Times

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