Photos taken from the same spot in Beijing for 365 days in 2013 BeijingAirNow

Beijing declares dramatic success in fighting air pollution

Jennifer Pak May 8, 2019
Photos taken from the same spot in Beijing for 365 days in 2013 BeijingAirNow

China’s economy is not growing as fast as it used to. That’s partly due to government efforts to clean up air pollution, which officials say they have had dramatic success with.

The country’s Ecology and Environment Minister Li Ganjie said at the annual political meeting in early March that in 338 major Chinese cities, the average density of PM 2.5 — a fine particulate that can seep deep into the lungs and cause health problems — had dropped 9.3 percent in 2018.

In typically smoggy Beijing, the PM 2.5 density dropped 12.1 percent during that same period, following a 20.5 percent decline in 2017.

Marketplace asked people in the Chinese capital if they felt a difference in their day-to-day lives. Their answers have been edited for brevity, grammar and style.

Beijing residents on moped
Residents of Beijing check the air quality readings as much as the weather.

Beijing native, Ms. Liu

How do you cope with air pollution? If the air quality is only in the “good” range, then I will not go out. I wait until the air quality is considered “excellent.”(Marketplace note: “Excellent” is where PM 2.5 density is lower than 35 micrograms per cubic meter, which is the least ambitious target set by the World Health Organization.) We also have air purifiers at home. One is portable, and I move it to any room I stay in.

Blue Map air quality app
A popular air quality app called Blue Map alerts people to the source of the pollution has been downloaded more than half a million times.

How bad does the pollution get in Beijing? When the smog gets heavy, there is a strange smell in the air. I can’t breathe properly. I do not dare to open the windows. I also have a gas mask. When the PM 2.5 density hits higher than 300 (Marketplace note: nearly 10 times higher than the interim standard set by the World Health Organization) and I must go out, like for a doctor’s appointment, an ordinary face mask won’t work, so I will wear a gas mask.

Have you seen an improvement in air quality lately? The smog this year is better than in the past. The most obvious change is that I can go out more often.

Beijing resident Jessica Feng
Despite improvement in the air quality, Beijing resident Jessica Feng tries to stay indoors as much as possible during the winter months.

Beijing native, Jessica Feng

How do you cope with air pollution? I usually check the air quality with Baidu [a search engine] and if the air is good, I will open my windows. If it is bad, I will keep them shut. I have an air purifier I bought two years ago. Before then, I didn’t pay much attention to air quality. Then, my throat hurt and keeping the windows shut also made me feel bad. Now, when I go out, I will either take a taxi or drive. I don’t walk as much.

How bad does the pollution get in Beijing? During bad days, the sky gets dull, smog is everywhere, and the pollution seems like it will never clear up. The air gets dirty and my throat hurts.

Have you seen an improvement in air quality lately? It seems there are more blue skies than before, but it is still terrible in the winter time with the smog.

Beijing resident Liu Xiuyan
Liu Xiuyan covers her face to protect herself from traffic fumes while delivering yogurt drinks on her electric bicycle. However, on really polluted days she wears an anti-smog mask, which she says is her only defense.

Yogurt drink deliverer, Li Xiuyan, 51

How do you cope with air pollution? When the air pollution is heavy, I will put on an anti-smog face mask. This is the only measure I can take. My son also carries masks with him every day.

How do you know if the pollution is bad? Every morning when I get up, if the sun shines through my window, I know the air will be good. If it seems dusty outside, it must be smog.

Have you seen an improvement in air quality lately? I don’t drink or smoke, but my throat used to feel uncomfortable during smoggy days and my nose was blocked with filthy stuff. These symptoms have disappeared over the last two years.

Every morning at 7 a.m., engineer Zou Yi takes photos of the Beijing skyline and matches it up to the government’s air quality readings. His project in Chinese is called Yimu Liaoren, which roughly means ‘seeing is believing’ and it came after years of government denial that the air quality was as bad as it looked.

Zou Yi, founder of BeijingAirNow, an environmental group documenting China’s battle against air pollution, with images

In 2008, China hosted the Beijing Olympics despite a lot of international attention on the poor air quality. Four American cyclists who arrived wearing face masks were forced to apologize after a lot of Chinese people found the move insulting. What did you make of the air quality back then? I remembered the air in 2008 was not very good.  However, there was a lot of confusion among the public about what was the cause of it. Also, the government said there was no problem with air quality.

(Marketplace note: During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, officials told the public that the presence of haze didn’t always mean the air was polluted. Meanwhile, a monitor atop the U.S. embassy’s compound revealed unhealthy levels of pollution on days when officials said the air was good, even excellent. Under pressure in 2012, the Chinese government slowly released more detailed pollution readings, including the hazardous PM 2.5 levels.)

When did you pay close attention to air pollution? 2013. That year, we couldn’t see anything outside for 50 to 70 percent of the time. It was dusty and the air smelled like chemicals. I started taking photos of the Beijing skyline and putting them on social media, which generated a lot of discussion.

Beijing good air quality
Beijing good air quality days are becoming more frequent, although still not up to international standards set by the World Health Organization.

How did this project turn into a daily thing? I majored in engineering. I am good at observing and recording things. After taking these photos from the same spot for about 60 days, I arranged the photos together and I could see the clear change. I asked myself: How could Beijing’s air be so terrible? I put it on social media and it generated a lot of discussion.

Your project in Chinese is called Yimu liaoren, what does that mean? It roughly means ‘seeing is believing.’ There were so many confusing opinions about smog at the time. I just took daily photos of the Beijing TV station building. I kept the time of day and shooting angle consistent. What was changing was the air quality, the weather and our government’s efforts to improve air quality. These can be seen clearly from the photos. I presented them objectively and let people make their own judgments. My photos were used in discussions about air quality in 2014 by the National People’s Congress representatives.

Beijing air quality photo
Zou Yi takes a photo from the same spot in central Beijing every day to document the government’s fight against air pollution.

What causes China’s air pollution? The country’s Reform and Opening Up policy led to rapid development as China took on the role as the factory of the world. Now many polluting factories have been moved out of Beijing, so the main sources of pollution are cars, construction and Chinese kitchens.

Have you seen an improvement in air quality? I am happy to say that the year I started taking photos, in 2013, the average density of PM 2.5 was 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter, but in 2018, it was 50. However, this is still much higher than the national standard of 35, and far from the World Health Organization’s standard of 10. I think it will take another 15 to 20 years to improve the air quality. The improvement in air quality so far is because Beijing switched to cleaner energy, like natural gas heating and electric buses. Heavy industries have shifted out.

(Marketplace note: At times, the transition happened abruptly. Some households had their coal-powered heaters switched off before their natural gas heaters were installed, which left families without heat during the winter months.)

Beijing air quality reading in office
A Beijing office tower posts the air quality reading and main pollutant readings for workers. Concern about air pollution has grown in China in recent years.

Have you changed the way you live your life because of your awareness of air pollution? I have two cars, but I haven’t driven them much for the past four years. Before, if I wanted to buy a bottle of soy sauce, I would drive to the supermarket because I felt it would be a loss of face for me to walk. Now, I walk or take public transport.

It’s going on your seventh year taking photos of Beijing’s skyline, you also have volunteers across the country taking similar photos for comparison. What is the next step? I am developing an app where you can take a photo and detect the air quality.

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