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13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution

    So you want to know a bit more about Beijing’s air pollution? Well, after living in China for three years and being a geography teacher, I feel I know quite a bit about this topic. So, without further ado, lets take a deeper look at Beijing’s air pollution and the problems associated with this…

    Beijing’s air pollution

    When it comes to climate change and the damage we have done to our planet, one big factor is air pollution. This comes from many different causes – cars, farming and agriculture, even cleaning products. And one place that suffers from air pollution to a really high degree is Beijing, China’s vast and fascinating capital city. In this blog post you’ll learn 13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution: where it comes from, how fast it’s developing, and much more…

    The air quality in Beijing is 16x worse than in New York City

    13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution

    New York City has often been labelled as having poor air pollution – but in Beijing, the air quality is actually a whopping 16 times worse than NYC. There is a lot of smog, and visibility is often very poor in Beijing; blue sky is a rarity, and you often can’t see buildings which are only a few roads or blocks away. Air pollution levels do go up and down, but overall Beijing’s air pollution levels are bad.

    Coronavirus didn’t solve air Beijing’s air pollution

    One of the scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution is that even when the city shut down thanks to Covid-19 and the lockdowns imposed across the globe, Beijing’s air pollution didn’t actually heal. We might expect that when everybody stays at home and stops using their cars, and construction work across the city grinds to a halt, that air pollution figures would drop dramatically – almost entirely. But this simply wasn’t the case with air pollution in Beijing. 

    As it turns out, most of the air pollution in Beijing comes from the steel industry. A city just outside of Beijing called Tangshan has the largest concentration of steel industry anywhere across the globe. And steel work didn’t actually stop during the first wave of the pandemic, meaning there were still pollutants infiltrating the air in Beijing and the surrounding areas. Air pollution only improved by around 25%. You can read more about this here!

    December 2022 saw Beijing’s worst air pollution in over 2 years

    As mentioned, coronavirus lockdowns saw Beijing’s air pollution levels improve by around 25% – and other factors have helped matters, especially as people are working really hard to try and bring the levels down. But in December 2022, Beijing was struck by its worst case of air pollution in the past 2 years. This was largely caused by a sandstorm in northern China, which was literally filling the air with a thick hazy dust. On one particular day, the city hit the *maximum* level or air pollution (500) and citizens were told to stay indoors where possible for their own health and safety.

    Sandstorms like this one are said to be caused by deforestation and drought, both other factors in the war against our planet. They don’t tend to happen so late in the year, which proves how our climate is rapidly changing.

    Lung cancer rates in Beijing have increased by 60%

    13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution

    Even though the number of smokers in and across the city has not changed, the rates of people suffering from lung cancer in Beijing has risen by a huge 60% – this is a devastating consequence of the air pollution in the city. Air pollution in Beijing is really heavily linked to higher mortality rates (especially related to respiratory illnesses) as well as a lower birth rate than other parts of China. The life expectancy of Beijing residents is actually 5-6 years less than citizens of southern China. Find out more about this here!

    Beijing’s air pollution impacts the US too

    In what is a huge ‘catch 22’ situation, air pollution in Beijing impacts people in the US too. Dangerous contaminants, particles and emissions which are in the air in the Chinese capital can, at times, be blown right across the Pacific Ocean to the western part of the United States. This happens because of some really powerful global winds known as the ‘Westerlies’. 

    According to the National Geographic, Westerlies are prevailing winds that blow from the west at midlatitudes. They are fed by polar easterlies and winds from the high-pressure horse latitudes, which sandwich them on either side. Westerlies are strongest in the winter, when pressure over the pole is low, and weakest in summer, when the polar high creates stronger polar easterlies.

    As mentioned, this impact on the US is a catch 22. This is because the demand for products created in China largely stems from the US – so the more need there is for these products, the more air pollution is created which can then impact those in America. It’s ironic!

    Beijing’s air pollution levels drop during major events

    13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution

    Residents in Beijing do get some reprieve from the harsh conditions – and that’s during major events in the city, when the government temporarily closes down nearby factories and limits the amount of traffic within the city in order to clear the air for visitors. The lowest PM2.5 readings each year come during the annual National People’s Congress meeting, which lasts for two weeks.

    PM2.5 is the name given to fine particulate matter, ‘an air pollutant that is a concern for people’s health when levels in air are high. PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated. Outdoor PM2.5 levels are most likely to be elevated on days with little or no wind or air mixing.’

    Things have definitely improved since the Olympics

    While the figures may seem bleak, there has definitely been an improvement since Beijing hosted the Olympic Games in 2008. Five years on from the Olympics, in 2013, China added PM2.5 information to their annual environmental reporting. And since then, a 2021 report from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment has shown us that the PM2.5 levels nationwide (across the whole of China) have dropped from 72μg/m3 down to just 30μg/m3.

    This is a 58% drop, signifying massive improvement when we look at the country as a whole. However, it is still 6x higher than the WHO guidelines which are just 5μg/m3 – so that’s another of our 13 scary truths about air pollution in Beijing!

    There is a ban on using coal for indoor heating

    In order to try and combat some of Beijing’s air pollution, the city introduced a ban on using coal for indoor heating. This happened in 2014, and it has been moderately successful in reducing some of the air pollution in Beijing over the years since. It was actually temporarily reversed in 2017 due to a heating crisis, but it remains in place again now. This shows the effort the city is going to to try and reverse the air pollution occurring, by implementing policies of this kind.

    Residents wear masks to protect themselves

    Beijing’s air pollution

    Even before we saw Covid-19 sweep the globe and turn into a full-blown pandemic, people in many Chinese cities – including Beijing – already wore those blue and white masks we have all become so familiar with, as well as patterned masks to match their outfits! These masks provide a barrier between the tiny (and harmful) particles in the air, and the wearer’s lungs. It has long since proven to be an affordable and effective way to combat the many dangers associated with Beijing’s air pollution, and that of other cities across China.

    “While tackling pollution requires multiple and synergic approaches, encouraging self-prevention using pollution masks is a simple and effective action, implementable at negligible costs. Resistance among younger, well-educated cohorts to wear masks can be overcome by stressing the social desirability of action and the sense of empowerment derived from its usage.” – from a study entitled ‘Exploring motivations behind pollution-mask use in a sample of young adults in urban China’.

    Flights had to be grounded at one point due to air pollution in Beijing

    Another of my 13 scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution is that during the winter of 2013, the smog across the city was so bad that around 400 flights had to be grounded in one day as the visibility was so poor that it would simply have been too dangerous for pilots to guide their aircraft above the city. Of course, this was a huge disruption to tourists and businessmen/women trying to get in and out of the city.

    “Almost 250 flights were cancelled, including some 15 international services, according to the website of the international airport in the Chinese capital.More than 180 flights were delayed, including about 20 international services. Visibility at the airport early Saturday was at less than 200 metres (650 feet), official state news agency Xinhua said, blaming “widespread fog” for the disruption” – from Phys.org

    This entire issue obviously led to a lot of complaints and discussions, forcing the government to respond and of course up their game in terms of combating the issue.

    Beijing’s air pollution

    Some people – and not just the companies that sell them – have recommended that tourists and students pack an air purifier in their suitcase when travelling to Beijing, especially if planning to stay for a long period of time, like those who choose to study abroad. This means you can breathe safely when indoors, in your hotel room or apartment, and allow your lungs to recover after spending time outdoors with Beijing’s air pollution…

    Air pollution is costing Beijing a LOT of money

    We know that air pollution is costly in that it is so damaging to our health – but it’s also costing Beijing a lot of money. Recent figures aren’t readily available, but in 2012 the price of air Beijing’s air pollution was roughly $328 million dollars in economic losses. This is a hefty loss, eaten up by policies and multiple ways in which to try and improve the air quality. By spending money now to solve the issue, it is hopeful that the issue will be less costly for future generations as there will be less of a problem to try and fix.

    Data can often be skewed for political reasons

    When it comes to the scary truths about Beijing’s air pollution, one fact we need to look at and remember is that sometimes the facts aren’t always true… China is a country which has long been caught up in global controversies, and some governments and countries will always be happy to paint China in a bad light. One way of doing this might be to skew the data and possibly exaggerate how bad air pollution (and other issues) in Beijing and the rest of China actually are.

    That’s not to say this is what’s happening, or that air pollution isn’t an issue – of course it is, many of us have experienced it for ourselves or at least seen the photos or heard first-hand accounts from Chinese residents.

    However, it is important to take what we read with a pinch of salt – facts, data and statistics might not always be accurate…

    Beijing’s air pollution- To conclude

    It is clear to see that Beijing’s air pollutionis a big deal. There are plenty of scary truths about the damage being done to the planet in this particular Chinese city, as well as the impact this has on peoples’ health and the economy. If you found this blog post about Beijing’s air pollution interesting, you might be interested in the following blog posts…