Social media protests and US direct diplomacy pushed authorities in China’s capital to clean up heavy industry and home heating
Nine years after toxic smog in China’s capital sparked widespread protest, climate advocates are hailing “extraordinary progress” in Beijing’s fight against air pollution.
The city authorities declared on Tuesday they had fully met all their air quality targets for the first time in 2021 – almost a decade earlier than experts expected. This was in response to measures to reduce coal smoke from heavy industries and home heating.
They claimed to have reduced the PM2.5 weight in the air from 63% to 33 micrograms between 2013 and 2021. These official figures are consistent with those from the US Embassy in Beijing and the progress reported by UN Environment Programme. While a huge improvement, the average pollution level is still more than double the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 15 micrograms.
David Vance Wagner was the US climate envoy’s China lead under president Barack Obama. He tweeted: “Incredible… Amazing progress, almost unimaginable 10 year ago.”
Incredible: Beijing gov’t has announced that the city met China’s air quality targets for all 6 key pollutants in 2021. Extraordinary progress that was almost unimaginable 10 years ago. https://t.co/M5XiGoilDA pic.twitter.com/5Tpcf0vNu2
— David Vance Wagner (@vancewagner) January 4, 2022
Greenpeace East Asia’s political adviser Li Shuo told Climate Home News: “Back in 2013 [when particularly severe air pollution sparked protests], the current progress is what we thought could only be possible around 2030.”
Beijing has been trying to reduce air pollution since before 2008 Olympics. However, the issue rose to the political agenda when the PM2.5 level soared to 993 micrograms/m3.
There were media reports at the time of the incident that children were playing in domes and international companies were handing out masks to employees. Elite golfers also wore masks at a Beijing televised competition.
Lauri Myllyvirta, director of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air said: “There was an outpouring of public concern and anger. It was the golden age of Chinese social media expression [before censorship intensified]It was everywhere. It was really the main topic of conversation.”
He added that the pressure on the government was greater because Beijing’s middle and upper class, including the decision-makers themselves, were affected.
US direct diplomacy was a key factor. The embassy installed monitors for air pollution and regularly tweeted the PM2.5 pollution levels to increase awareness. It used the US Environmental Protection agency label which classified as “hazardous” concentrations the Chinese government labelled as “moderately polluted”, Myllyvirta said.
“That discrepancy, even more than the data and the numbers, showed that the Chinese government [was] playing this down and not taking it seriously,” he added.
Beijing authorities responded to the criticism by reducing emissions from coal. They continued to switch from coal power to natural gas and worked with their neighbours to establish emissions standards for coal-fired power plants and heavy industries such as steel and cement.
For reducing their emissions, coal-burning companies were financially rewarded. Many companies installed scrubbers, which filter harmful particles from the atmosphere before they are released to the atmosphere.
Subsidies were provided to homeowners to convert their coal-fired boilers to gas-fired boilers. These boilers heat homes in winter. “In the winter of 2017/2018, coal-based heating was basically eliminated,” Myllyvirta said.
Myllyvirta said Beijing’s example shows reducing air pollution is “doable” and “makes perfect economic sense”. Every country’s path to reducing air pollution will differ though, he said, as their decision-making systems and pollution sources vary.
Li said that Beijing’s success has been repeated across China. “Most cities have seen improvement over the last decade. Beijing is certainly one of the fastest,” he said. But, he added, “it is still miserable in much of Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Shandong, and Sichuan”.
Myllyvirta said he expected Beijing’s air pollution levels to continue to fall and the authorities next needed to reduce the absolute amount of coal and oil that is burned.
Source: Climate Change News