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After Olympics, China Still Worried About Clean Air for Beijing

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Air quality of Beijing was a focal point both before and during the Olympic Games. After the Olympics, the topic faded out of the media, but Beijing is still working hard to keep the sky blue. According to the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau, from January 1, 2009 to June 9, 2009, 81 percent of the days achieved an air quality of Grade II or better. As a matter of fact, Beijing residents are enjoying the best air quality for the same period of time since year 2000, partly thanks to the city's high-polluting vehicle phase-out plan.

The Ministry of Environment Protection has categorized air quality into five grades. Grade I is the best, with an Air Pollutant Index (API) of less than 50, and Grade II is good, with an index ranging from 51 to 100. High-polluting vehicles are a major source of air pollutants in Beijing. By the end of 2008, the 353,800 yellow-mark cars accounted for only 10 percent of the total cars in Beijing, but emitted half of the total pollutants by vehicles in Beijing.

In addition to the yellow label vehicle phase-out incentives, Beijing has provided discount car loans of up to two years to public service driving contractors who purchase green label cars in 2009, based on the purchase date.

* Jan. 1 to June 30, 2009: 2-year discount car loan
* Jul. 1 to Sept. 30, 2009: 1.5-year discount car loan
* Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009: 1-year discount car loan

The Beijing Transportation Bureau even gave an example of how a car owner could best benefit from the campaign. If a driving contractor purchased his heavy truck for 300,000 yuan ($43,920) in 2004 and traded in it by June 30, 2009, he would receive 15,000 yuan ($2,196). He would save additional 36,000 yuan ($5,270) on a car loan if he purchased a green-label car of a similar model. The savings would total 51,000 yuan ($7,460), more than one-sixth of the car's value.

Still, the incentive seems unattractive to most owners. It is estimated that to date (June 9, 2009), Beijing has only disbursed incentives to 31,871 yellow-label vehicle owners, close to 10 percent of the stock. But most yellow-label cars have disappeared. It's the "forbidden zone" that makes the difference. Most owners choose to sell their yellow-label cars to secondhand car dealerships, which then sell the cars to the neighboring cities that have less stringent emission regulations. That is, most high-polluting cars are not traded in, but spread around the city.

In addition to the stringent regulations, Beijing continues to add cleaner buses to its public transportation system. Beijing owns 4,000 more natural gas buses than any other city in the world, and will continue to increase that number to 5,000 by 2012.

Beijing also has set a rule that forces each car off the street for one weekday. For example, if its license number ends in 1 or 6, a car can't be on the street on Monday; this keeps 20 percent of cars at home on weekdays. But some would argue that rich people can buy a second car just for use during that one weekday. Beijing has also moved most high-polluting industries out of the area and has increased its forest coverage to 36.5 percent.

A couple of days ago, the Beijing Transportation Commission released a green public transportation initiative for 2009-2015. Some highlights are as follows:

* By 2015, Beijing's daily public transportation (buses and subways) capacity will be 25 million passenger-trips, including 15 million by bus and 10 million by subway.
* 45 percent of passenger-trips in the metro area will be by public transportation.
* The city will establish approximately 1,000 bicycle-rental stations, with a total of 50,000 bicycles available for rent. Walk-only and bicycle-only street lanes will be opened across the metro area.
* The public-transportation-only lane will be 450 kilometers long.
* 90 percent of public transportation passengers in the metro area will walk less than 500 meters to the nearest station.

Although the API shows better air quality of Beijing, it should be noted that the API currently only measures the concentration of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), suspended particulates (PM10), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3). It was reported that China is considering including suspended particulates (PM2.5), which is more damaging to the respiratory system than PM10, in the API.

My colleague Alex Wang and his team just released a milestone pollution index, PITI (Pollution Information Transparency Index), which monitors how 113 Chinese cities perform in terms of disclosure of pollution information.


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