Why Pollution in Beijing Will Persist

A woman wears a mask during severe pollution in Beijing on Jan. 12, 2013 Photograph by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, Jan. 18, the thick pall of pollution that blanketed Beijing earlier in the week returned, raising readings to hazardous levels.

Why is Beijing susceptible to these episodes? First, and uncontrollable by the authorities, are the peculiarities of Beijing’s geography. In particular, the capital is surrounded by mountain ranges that lead to the unfortunate phenomenon of an inversion layer—cold air settles on top of a warmer air mass, trapping the pollutants inside. This is the same problem that bedevils Los Angeles.

Beyond the misfortune of geography, though, lie a number of factors that have everything to do with China’s policies. Even as Beijing has moved much heavy industry out of the city limits, there has been a surge of industrialization in neighboring provinces like Hebei, home to major steel and cement industries. Beijing’s steel giant Shougang, for example, has relocated to the port city of Caofeidian, Hebei, some 200 kilometers away. And pollution no doubt has been exacerbated by years of investment-led growth that led to a huge jump in industrial production, with China producing vast quantities of steel, aluminum, and cement, even when underlying demand hasn’t kept up.

China is blessed and cursed with the world’s largest coal reserves, which means that the country sources some 80 percent of its electricity from burning coal—and much of that coal is of lower quality and highly polluting. Then there is the problem of autos: Beijing’s 20 million people already have some 5 million cars, a number that keeps rising. While the authorities have reduced the city’s reliance on burning coal for heat by using natural gas instead, the surge in noxious auto emissions has negated any improvement.

Progress can’t be expected to come quickly. While Beijing can add catalytic converters and filters to all cars in the city, and restrict the number of autos on the road every day, that’s a rearguard action: Millions more Chinese in Beijing are saving right now to purchase cars. Stricter regulations on emissions—where Beijing has already moved fairly quickly—are hampered by the tendency of factory owners and others to skirt laws.

Meanwhile, the government faces a conundrum: It needs fast growth to create jobs for the millions of new migrants to the cities—and the easiest way to do that has been by relying on often dirty, energy-wasting production. Efforts to boost the service sector and move to a more consumption-driven economy—which would certainly be a much cleaner one—are blocked by the growth-at-all costs mentality that still pervades the system.