"Click-click." Zou Yi, founder of social media account BeijingAirNow, stood on the flyover close to the China World Trade Center in Beijing's central business district, taking pictures of the sky with his cellphone. His dog, named Baiyou, which means tar or pitch, sat quietly next to him.
"I have persisted in recording the changes in Beijing's air quality every day since 2013. And now, a decade has passed," Zou said. Although he had a cold, he still wrapped himself up in a coat and took Baiyou to three locations, the China World Trade Center, Beijing Radio and Television Station, and CITIC Tower, Beijing's tallest building, to photograph the sky. As usual, the sky over Beijing was azure.
Beijing's sky throughout the year in 2022 (ZOU YI)
However, 10 years ago, any shade of blue sky was far less common. Zou showed Beijing Review a composite picture made of photos of Beijing's sky taken throughout 2013. Hazy gray stood out as the dominant color of the collection. The top of the picture is also prominently marked with the annual average concentration of PM2.5, particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, considered among the most harmful to health. In that year, in Beijing, the average concentration of PM2.5 was 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter, far exceeding the annual average limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meters set by China's National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), which became effective in 2016. The continuous hazy weather made Zou determined to photograph the Beijing sky every day to record the changes in the city's air quality.
Beijing's sky throughout the year in 2013 (ZOU YI)
It was in that year that Beijing began a decade of historic efforts to fight air pollution.
Small particles, big impacts
Throughout its rapid economic and urban growth, Beijing has suffered from various "urban diseases." Air pollution has been a major environmental problem in Beijing and concern over its adverse effects has resulted in the implementation of a long series of control measures.
In the 1970s, Beijing began taking action to control air pollution. In the following decades, its focus has shifted from coarse particulate matter emissions and emissions from coal-fired facilities including boilers for public heating, power plants and stoves to industrial and vehicle emissions. Although the concentration of major pollutants in the air has been decreasing each year since then, the pollution was still very serious.
In 2013, the Beijing Municipal Government initiated a comprehensive air pollution control program, the Beijing Clean Air Action Plan 2013-17, with the objective to reduce annual average PM2.5 concentration to approximately 60 micrograms per cubic meter by 2017. The plan included detailed requirements for energy structure optimization, industrial green transformation and urban management. It focused on the implementation of eight major pollution reduction projects, including the control of coal combustion and vehicle emissions, pollution treatment, and the reduction of fugitive dust, which is often either brought to Beijing by the wind or the result of construction. According to the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau in 2013, Beijing would invest nearly 1 trillion yuan ($161.5 billion) in combating air pollution over the following five years, of which the government would invest approximately 200 billion yuan ($32.3 billion) to 300 billion yuan ($48.4 billion).
After five years of effort, the city's air quality had improved significantly, with its annual average concentration of PM2.5 falling to 58 micrograms per cubic meter in 2017, a 35.2-percent decrease from 2013. The goal had generally been considered difficult to achieve and the United Nations Environment Program recognized Beijing's efforts to combat air pollution in a report titled A Review of 20 Years' Air Pollution Control in Beijing.
Since then, Beijing has never stopped fine-tuning its air pollution control program in accordance with national policies. In 2018, the central leadership issued a three-year action plan for cleaner air, and in 2021, it issued another document to further the fight, both setting binding targets. Beijing also issued its own plans and took action accordingly.
Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to further reduce the PM2.5, the concentration of this type of particulate matter in Beijing has continued to decline, down to 42 micrograms per cubic meter in 2019. In 2021, the annual average concentration of PM2.5 throughout Beijing further dropped to 33 micrograms per cubic meter. It was also the first time in history that the annual average concentration of all six pollutants in the Air Quality Index, namely PM2.5, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, inhalable particulate matter, carbon monoxide and ozone, met the Grade II, or the less stringent limit, of the NAAQS. In that year, Beijing had good air quality on 288 days, 112 days more than in 2013; while it had heavy pollution on eight days, 50 fewer than in 2013. In 2022, the annual average concentration of PM2.5 throughout Beijing further decreased to 30 micrograms per cubic meter.
When it comes to whether the improvement in air quality has been related to decreased social activity and emissions during the pandemic, Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment, said "Even after deducting the impact of the pandemic, we still have successfully met the binding targets set in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20)." He said this during an interview in August 2021, quoting scientific assessments showing that the pandemic only had reduced PM2.5 concentration by 2 micrograms per cubic meter and the number of good air quality days by 2.2 percent.
Beijing's sky throughout the year in 2019 (ZOU YI)
"In the past, we didn't dare to open the windows in winter when we burned coal for heating, because a layer of ash would land on the windowsill. But that doesn't happen anymore," Hu Songling, who lives in Sanhe Nanli community in Beijing's Daxing District, said.
The ash that Hu referred to comes from a coal pile and a boiler room, which was built in 2003 to provide winter heating for buildings in three neighborhoods in the district. At the time, coal combustion was a major source of air pollution in Beijing.
The renovation of coal-fired boilers for public heating has become a crucial element in Beijing's air pollution control efforts. Ning Xiquan, Deputy Director of Daxing District Ecological Environment Bureau, told Beijing Business Today that from 2013 to 2017, Daxing District transformed coal-fired boilers with a combined capacity of nearly 3.6 million kW into ones that use either electricity or natural gas. The district also began work to lower emissions of nitrogen oxides in 2016, with boilers with a combined capacity of 2.23 million kW transformed by the time the project was complete in 2018. Coal to cleaner energy transformation has led to the continuous improvement of ecological and environmental quality in the district.
"Through coal to electricity and coal to gas transformation, the air quality in Beijing has been improved," Wang Peng, an associate professor of chemistry at Renmin University of China, said.
After the transformation was complete, some of the boilers and coal storage areas became superfluous, with residents sometimes finding new uses for them, such as drying and storing grain. In early 2020, Daxing District transformed the boiler room and coal pile in Hu's neighborhood into a comprehensive service center called Mei Lin Fang, which retains the style of the original boiler room with its red brick facade. The building is a fresh food supermarket on the first floor, a community activity center on the second floor, and a café-style bookstore on the third floor. Mei Lin Fang provides services to nearly 100,000 residents in more than 20 communities.
Although the achievements are remarkable, there is still a long way to go in Beijing's battle against air pollution. "Air pollution is a long-term, arduous and complex challenge. The PM2.5 level in Beijing is still significantly higher than in many other developed cities around the world. Continuous efforts are needed for the continuous improvement of air quality in Beijing," Liu Baoxian, Director of the Beijing Ecological Environment Monitoring Center, said.
The air quality report released by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment on March 16 showed a year-on-year rise in PM2.5 concentration in Beijing in the first two months of this year, and a 10.1-percent decrease in the number of good air quality days in the city year on year, further illustrating the need for continued efforts to control pollution, with life returning to normal after the optimization of pandemic control measures.
The Beijing Municipal Government has allocated 17.64 billion yuan ($2.73 billion) for energy conservation and environmental protection in its 2023 budget, with the goal of further reducing PM2.5 concentration.
Wang believes that the future development of Beijing must come with the improvement of air quality. To achieve digital and green transformation and protect the environment, Beijing needs to leverage its strong research and development capacity to develop industries such as green advanced manufacturing and digital economy.
As Beijing enters the next phase of its war against pollution, it has an opportunity to place more emphasis on market-based approaches in order to more sustainably reduce pollution at a lower cost. "Beijing can also take advantage of its financial resources and tools, including improving the carbon emissions trading regime, to back green industries and then improve Beijing's air quality even further," Wang added.
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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