Blue skies were the rare backdrop for last week’s huge military parade in Beijing, which commemorated the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Imperial Japan.
The two-week period running up to the parade, and the big day itself, were characterised by a stark improvement in air quality, as the capital’s environment reaped the benefits of drastic environmental actions across 70 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.
Alas, the improvement was short-lived. Smog returned the day following the parade, and the stark difference illustrated by photos of the Beijing skyline before and after the anti-smog measures were in place are a reminder of how exposed the capital is to sources of pollution both within, and outside, its city limits.
The measures – and the desired result – were the result of an extraordinary effort following orders from the very top of government to guarantee a pleasant setting for a showpiece political event.
The joint effort by Beijing and surrounding provinces, and a similar push for clean skies ahead of the APEC summit last year, will have provided some valuable insights for cities and provinces in a region that is marked by clearly contrasting political and economic priorities.
Beijing is moving towards an increasingly service-based economy, and the city’s bosses are under pressure to improve living conditions for its residents by cutting down on smog. Neighbouring Hebei, meanwhile, is worried that a crackdown on polluting industries will prompt widespread job losses and social unrest.
But even though much of the action was required from industrial areas well beyond the capital’s hinterland, from early August Beijing’s municipal government had to implement a comprehensive plan to prevent homegrown smog.
Up to half of Beijing’s private vehicles were taken off the roads, trips by government vehicles were reduced by over 80% and no tipper trucks or concrete mixers were allowed to operate. Work was also halted or scaled back at almost of 2,000 of Beijing’s remaining factories – 15 times the number of installations targeted by the APEC summit last year.
But, despite the efforts in Beijing, the prospect of parade-day blue skies was threatened by pollution from elsewhere, and the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Centre forecast that a cloud of pollution would likely shroud the capital between September 2 and 4.
Curbs on cars, similar to those deployed in Beijing, were introduced in Hebei and Tianjin. While forecasts of winds blowing towards the capital from areas south and east meant that officials then had to focus on which particular compounds to prevent from reaching the atmosphere, said Zhang Dawei, head of the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Centre.
Sulphates, particularly from coal-burning, were targeted because they are the PM2.5 pollutants that have the biggest impact on visibility. A particular source of concern was large power, steel and concrete producing plants, many of which have big chimneys, as these have the potential for these to belch out pollution further than most other installations. In total, operations were halted or reduced at 12,255 coal-burning furnaces, factories and concrete-mixing stations.
Having targeted the main polluters, further efforts were made to ensure environmental laws were strictly enforced. In Hebei, 21 prosecutions were initiated for environmental violations, with 19 suspected offenders arrested and a further 35 people put in ‘administrative detention’. One company was fined 500,000 yuan (US$78,000) and some officials faced punishment.
Removing the pollution risk
The measures taken in Beijing and the surrounding areas had a clear impact on PM2.5 levels, said Pan Tao, deputy head of the Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection. Data, based on air quality measurements, showed an average fall of 41% in PM2.5 levels in Beijing between August 20 and September 3 to the lowest levels since China started measuring the particulate in 2012.
Without the measures, PM2.5 levels would have been about 70% higher than what was experienced.
“The reductions in pollutant and PM2.5 levels achieved through these measures were slightly higher than those seen for the APEC summit last year,” Pan pointed out, highlighting the emergency measures taken in the first three days of September in Beijing and nearby cities.
The average of only 18 micrograms per cubic metre represented a fall of 73.1% on the previous year, while sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM10 levels in the city also fell to new lows. On the morning of the parade itself, PM2.5 levels were down to just eight micrograms per cubic metre.
In the 70 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region air quality was good overall, with average PM2.5 levels of 35 micrograms per cubic metre. Compared with 52 of the cities with data available from last year that represented an average fall of 34%.