From space and on the ground, better air quality observed in Beijing


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A few days before the 2008 Olympic Games began last August, China blogger David Dollar noticed that Beijing's efforts to clean up its air seemed to be paying off. Well, it seems that after the officials took the worst polluting vehicles off the road, temporarily shut down some major polluting factories, and limited the amount of traffic, the city's air quality did indeed get better.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) yesterday released a report concluding that Olympic organizers successfully made efforts to improving the city's environment for an "eco-friendly mass spectator sporting event." The press release stated, "These achievements are all the more impressive given that the Games were held in a rapidly developing city in a country facing multiple development challenges in the first decade of the 21st century." You can download the full report here.

An interesting part of the report points to NASA data, which used satellite imagery to demonstrate that air quality over the city improved. wrote about these findings in December:

NASA scientists report the measures had an "unmistakable impact" with levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a noxious gas resulting from fossil fuel combustion – falling nearly 50 percent during the two months when restrictions were in place. [...]

Clearly, carbon monoxide concentrations decreased most in the area immediately around Beijing. According to the researchers, led by atmospheric scientist Jacquelyn Witte, carbon monoxide concentrations over Beijing decreased by 20 percent.

David Dollar had hoped the city would learn from its temporary successes and design longer-term policies to keep up the better air quality. Either way, I was really struck by an interesting side note on how the Beijing's actions may help scientists in future research. As noted: "The researchers say China's pollution experiment will help climate scientists refine their emissions models."

Image credit: dngpng at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Join the Conversation

Cleaner Greener China
February 20, 2009

What amazes me about this stroy is that people are surprised by the results.

Of course it worked. Factories in Beijing's surrounding provinces were shut down, trucks taken off the road, personal automobile restrictions, and cloud seedy.

Of course, I am glad that scientists are studying this, but the actions taken were not "sustainable" in any manner, and the pollution returned the minute they began switching the lights off.

Lesson learned: If you want clean air, it is possible with the right motivation to take drastic action.

David Dollar
February 24, 2009

All of the measures taken by Beijing to clean up air during the Olympics can be sustained if there is political will. For instance, Beijing has instituted alternate day driving based on license-plate number. This is not the most efficient way to limit car use, but it has been effective in reducing car traffic. Some of the factories closed for the Olympics have been required to relocate to less populated areas. The air this winter has been better than in any of the last five years, according to my "nose" test. So, the Olympics will have a permanent effect on air quality here, though the city could still do more in terms of investing in public transportation and restricting car use, as far as I am concerned.