Traffic, air a bit better in Beijing

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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.


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