U.N. report shows how People’s China cleaned Beijing’s air

By Joshua Hanks
January 22, 2020

The United Nations Environment Programme recently released a report called “UN Environment 2019: A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing.” It sheds new light on the astounding cleanup of air pollution in China’s bustling capital city of 22 million people.

Chinese cities now get much of their energy from solar panels, like these outside Chongqing.

The report summarizes a treasure trove of data that has consistently shown sharp improvements in Beijing’s air quality over the past several years. These improvements accelerated after the central government declared a “war on pollution” in 2014. (tinyurl.com/r2q5o4m/)

The Western corporate media, which a decade ago showed endless images of Beijing’s smoggy skies and devoted plenty of coverage to what was dubbed the “airpocalypse,” are conspicuously silent now that blue skies are the norm in that huge city.

Yet the data speak for themselves. The steps China took provide a model for other cities, especially in the developing world, which are currently grappling with air pollution. China presents an environmental success story at a time when so much environmental news is negative.

Spending on air pollution control in Beijing.

Beijing’s efforts actually go back to 1998, when the municipal government launched several measures aimed at combating pollution. Since then, the annual average concentrations of sulfur dioxide have declined by 93.3 percent, nitrous dioxide fell 37.8 percent, and PM2.5 (particle matter with aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 microns or less) decreased 35.6 percent, with most decreases happening since 2013.

Pollution from vehicles has also decreased significantly, even though the city has three times as many cars as it did 20 years ago. Since 1998, carbon monoxide emissions from vehicle traffic are down 89 percent, total hydrocarbon emissions fell 64 percent, nitrous oxide emissions decreased 55 percent, and PM2.5 fell 81 percent.

Beijing, like the rest of China, has also invested heavily in extensive public transit systems, which greatly reduce air pollution and provide an equally accessible form of transportation.

Meanwhile in Germany, often touted as a leading “green” capitalist country, emissions from the transport sector are 25 percent higher than in 1995.

Graph credit: UN Environment Programme