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Traffic, air a bit better in Beijing

David Dollar's picture
The CCTV building in downtown Beijing. The skies returned to gray on Tuesday, yet the air is cleaner than a year ago.

The temporary measures that Beijing has taken to improve air quality in the lead-up to the Olympics seem to be having some payoff.  Saturday and Sunday, August 2 and 3, were beautiful, clear days with blue skies.  By Tuesday, however, the skies over the downtown area were gray again as an inversion settled over the city.  Still, the air is cleaner than last year.  The results of the temporary measures reveal both how nice it is to have clearer skies and how easy in fact it is to make some inroads into the air pollution.  The temporary measures point the way to simple permanent measures that could make the air quality better sustainably.

First, Beijing has taken the worst polluting trucks off the road.  In recent years China has raised its vehicle standards beyond even what California has – but an important catch is that the higher standards are for new vehicles.  There are many old, heavy polluting vehicles on the road.  It is in China’s interest to bar these vehicles from large cities starting right now.

Second, it is possible to identify some major polluting factories.  These have been temporarily shut down for the Olympics.  The smart long-term policy is to either require stronger scrubbers/emissions control on these plants and/or to use zoning regulations to prevent their location anywhere close to major populations.

Third, cars can only drive on odd- or even-numbered days depending on the last digit of their license plate.  This would not be a sensible long-term policy because it would lead to inefficient use of the car fleet.  But the results show how much nicer traffic and air quality are with fewer cars on the road.  So, the analogous long-term policy is to discourage private car use for ordinary commuting.  This can be done by making it very expensive to drive private cars into the city center on work days (as in London) or using steep taxes to limit car ownership (as in Shanghai).  Efforts to limit private car use need to be complemented by stronger investment in public transportation – Beijing’s metro plus high-speed dedicated bus lanes that together can make a fast and clean way to get about the city. 

In short, Beijing should learn from its temporary success in improving air quality for the Olympics in order to design longer-term policies that keep the air quality at a better level.


Submitted by Ines on
I agree with all your views save for what you say about the solution to the car's problem. Levying the use of cars would be regressive and as long as there was the alternative to the use of car, i.e. public transportation, people would be able to go to their jobs in a cost-effective and timely manner, without discriminating between those who can afford a car and those who cannot. In terms of efficiency, we could wonder whether driving along more congested roads every day (hence, spending more time and petrol) is more efficient than driving fewer days but in better conditions.

Submitted by B.C. Albaghetti on
Yes, the haze and smog are back -- AP just released a video on that reversal: Even with the improvements relative to 2007, last Monday Beijing's air quality index of 88 (according to official measurements) was still much higher than the safety limit of 50 of WHO. China's limit, in contrast, is twice of that. There are two points that I have not seen mentioned in the EAP blog but deserve consideration about pollution in China, country which some climatologists believe has become the largest CO2 emitter of the world. One, which links with the comment here on pollution reduction and health (, is that that Beijing has become the perfect urban laboratory to examine the outcomes of China's large-scale efforts in controlling pollution. Thanks to the 2008 Olympics, it is probable we may obtain very useful information on the logistics of how to deal with pollution in other places. The other point is the globalizing connection between pollution in China and in other places. It is *globalizing* in at least two senses. On the one hand, pollution in China does not stay in China (; from specialized satellite measurements, it has been estimated that the amount of smoke and industrial-pollution aerosol arriving to western parts of (English-speaking) North America between 2002 and 2005 was ca. 2500 million pounds annually, or about 15% of American and Canadian local emissions. On the other hand, about 23% of China's total CO2 emitted in 2004 was due to net exports of cheap goods from its factories to Western consumers (, a large fraction of which represents a form of outsourcing of Western pollution.

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