Notoriously smoggy Beijing yesterday ushered in the Lunar New Year with the city’s first uninterrupted month of blue skies in a decade.
Benign weather and government controls on coal burning and vehicle exhausts cut pollution to more than half the normal levels last month, raising hopes the worst of the haze may finally be drawing to an end.
In an interview, Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Administration, which has been much criticized over the years, was in an ebullient mood.
“This is the best month we’ve had in terms of air quality since 1998,” he said. “In terms of environmental quality, we are on the way. We are climbing every day and trying to improve air quality.”
He acknowledged that the air quality over the past month had benefited from meteorological conditions — strong winds and cold fronts — but said the improvement was far from a one-off.
Last year, the air pollution index was below 100 — the city’s standard — for more than three out of every four days. In 1998, it was just one out of four.
“The comparison is astonishing. These figures tell a positive, long-term story,” Du said.
He illustrated the challenge with data on the four main sources: industry and power plants that burn 30 million tonnes of coal each year, traffic that has increased from 1 million to 4.8 million vehicles since 1998 and Beijing’s construction sites that cover an area of 100 million square meters — three times greater than all the building plots in Europe.
To modify the impact of a fast-growing and increasingly affluent population, Beijing has retrofitted the city’s five coal-fired power plants and 60,000 boilers with desulpherization scrubbers. Home heating has been switched to gas. As a result, coal consumption in Beijing has been stable for 12 years.
Along with a relocation of dirty factories ahead of the 2008 Olympics, this has contributed to a sharp fall in sulphur dioxide emissions, which failed to meet standards for only three days last winter, compared with 106 days in 1998.
Road traffic is now the priority. Beijing has steadily raised exhaust emission controls and will adopt the world-leading Euro5 standard next year, Du said.
Over the past five years, 300,000 of the highest-polluting vehicles have been phased out. From last month, the city also imposed limits on new registrations, which should slow the growth of traffic.
Beijing still has a long way to go to reach the air quality of cities in developed nations. Its standards do not currently include important pollutants like ozone and small particulates, known as PM2.5.
In the future, Du said more attention would be placed on cutting PM2.5 — most of which comes from cars — which poses a major health risk because it can enter the lungs and blood stream, while bigger PM10 particulates from industry tend to get stuck in nasal passages. The central government is currently considering whether to add PM2.5 to the national standards.
The improvements do not mean the smog has disappeared for good. Less than three months ago, the haze was so thick that it obscured entire skyscrapers.
According to the US embassy’s monitoring station, the air pollution index was off the scale at 500, prompting an unusual reading of “crazy bad.” The dry clear conditions also have an environmental downside: Beiing is suffering from a severe drought. Moreover, in many cases, the pollution has moved rather than disappeared, migrating along with dirty industry to poorer regions of China.