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Beijing’s air is getting slightly better — here’s how and why

An air intake device collects air samples for monitoring pollution at the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Monitoring Center in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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As decision day looms for host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics, officials in the Chinese capital boasted this week that they were finally making progress in cleaning up their city's notoriously polluted air.

Several months of slightly lower pollution levels have been capped by two weeks of clear blue skies, leaving many of Beijing’s residents smiling.

Nevertheless, environmental experts said it is far too early to declare victory, and that a marginal improvement in air quality did not imply that the battle against pollution had been won.

Efforts to cut coal consumption in Beijing and the neighboring province of Hebei, including the closure of two coal-fired power plants in the capital in March, have begun to have an effect, officials from Beijing’s environmental protection bureau told reporters Thursday. Nearly half a million old vehicles were also taken off the city’s streets last year.

As a result, Beijing recorded a 19 percent drop in the average PM2.5 level — a measure that records small particles in the air that enter people’s lungs and pose a major health threat — in the first four months of the year. The city also recorded 57 days officially classified as having “good air quality,” an increase of eight from the same time last year, though China’s benchmark would not meet global standards.

Fang Li, deputy director of Beijing’s environmental protection bureau, said the improvement was partly a delayed result of measures taken last year. But he also admitted that favorable weather had helped to disperse smog.

The data is largely consistent with observations by environmental groups here: Greenpeace recorded a 13 percent decline in PM2.5 levels in the first quarter.

“This means that the government’s strict pollution controls are working, at least enough to record a modest improvement on last year,” said Fang Yuan, a spokesman for the Climate and Energy Program of Greenpeace East Asia.

But he cautioned that “this is the only silver lining in a situation where 90 percent of cities still record levels of pollution that far exceed China’s own air quality standards” — which are already more lax than U.S. standards.

In China, the air quality is considered good when the 24-hour average PM2.5 level falls below 70 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In the United States, that level would be classified as “unhealthy.”

China’s leaders have declared a “war on pollution” and unveiled a national plan to improve air quality in late 2013.

On Thursday, the city’s administration invited reporters for a day of presentations about its efforts to clean up the air, to support Beijing’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. They said the main Olympic sites — Yanqing in north Beijing and Chongli in neighboring Hebei province — enjoy some of the best air in northern China.

But environmentalist Ma Jun said that if favorable weather were removed from the equation, Beijing’s air pollution might still be high. He urged the authorities to push harder to cut emissions and also highlighted concerns that pollution is being transferred to central and western areas of China, as eastern coastal areas cut back on coal consumption but some heavy industry moves west.

“We need to apply equally strict standards to the midwestern areas and equally strict law enforcement,” said Ma, whose Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs is also pushing for more disclosure of pollution data from factories and other sources in central and western areas.

Greenpeace is also arguing for regional caps on coal consumption within China and for  reducing PM2.5 level targets across the country.

The decision over which city will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, a toss-up between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, will be announced July 31.

Read more

• Beijing's Olympic bid tests whether the IOC is serious about reform

• In China’s war on bad air, government decision to release data gives fresh hope