Pollution controls are working.

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There's More Blue in Beijing Skies These Days

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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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. 

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.

  1. Beijing actually only ranks 55th among the world's cities for average air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, because of the variability in air quality here. But the bad days, such as during the pollution "red alert" last December, can be really awful. 

  2. The Paulson Institute compiled the averages through 2015, and I made my own calculations for 2016. Also, the State Department wants me to let you know that "these data are not fully verified or validated."

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

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net