China

There's More Blue in Beijing Skies These Days

Shuttering coal plants has improved air quality enough to notice.

Pollution controls are working.

Photo by: ChinaFotoPress/VCG via Getty Images

You can see the mountains today in Beijing. That's a giveaway that the air's pretty clean. Of the six days that I've been in the city, the mountains north of the city have been visible on three.

Beijing's air quality has always varied a lot from day to day depending on whether and which way the wind was blowing. Still, I was curious: could the famously bad air here actually be getting better?

The answer seems to be yes. There still are terrible days, especially in the winter. But overall, average concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) have been trending down since 2013. 

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This is based on the raw readings from the air-quality monitors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The State Department started releasing them on an hourly basis in 2008, and the Chinese government wasn't happy about it: it blocked the State Department's air-quality site on internet browsers here, and at one point even demanded that the State Department take the site down. Now, though, it does its own high-frequency monitoring and appears to have unblocked the State Department's site. Why block good news?

I am not the first to notice the improvement in Beijing's air. WorldPost's Matt Sheehan had a detailed article in January making the case that China was beginning to win its war on air pollution. Beijing-based software developer Russell Young, whose website is a wonderful resource for those wishing to slice and dice the State Department data, published a summing-up that found 2015 to be a big improvement on the years before. And yes, the Beijing local government says the air is getting better.

What's behind the improvement? Well, Beijing got rid of all of its coal-fired power plants, for one thing, and replaced them with natural-gas facilities. Also, according to Li Zheng, a Tsinghua University engineering professor I met at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin last weekend, there's less pollution wafting into town from steel and cement production in surrounding Hebei Province -- because of both environmental regulation and falling demand for steel and cement.

Less-wealthy Chinese regions probably can't afford to switch from coal to gas, and declining industrial production is of course not unmitigated good news. But the country does seem to be approaching that happy point in its development where rising affluence and worsening pollution stop going hand in hand.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.