- By Region
Every night an old coal train chugs in to central Beijing to deliver its load to the Guohua power plant, one of the city’s oldest power stations now surrounded by gliltzy malls and towering apartment blocks.
Soon, the trains will no longer be running. In a multibillion dollar bid to clean up air pollution, Beijing is shuttering its coal-fired plants and replacing them with natural gas-fuelled power stations by the end of next year.
“It’s going to be so much cleaner,” says a middle-aged woman who has lived next to the power station for more than a decade. A friend chimes in: “When I wipe my windowsills every day they are covered with coal dust.”
Beijing is one of the world’s dirtiest capitals – with pollution levels at nine times that of New York – and its smog problem has become an embarrassment for authorities who face growing public anger over the hazardous air.
Over the past year, Beijing has unveiled ambitious plans to replace its coal-fired power plants, run more cars and buses on natural gas, clamp down on construction site dust, and raise standards for vehicle emissions. If all goes to plan, the capital’s central urban areas will be completely coal-free by 2015.
“Beijing has consistently been ahead of the country and it is pretty clear that … some of the things they do get taken as a national model,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a senior adviser at the World Resources Institute in Beijing. “Within the next five years things are going to be visibly better.”
Not everyone shares that optimism. Critics point to Beijing’s history of manipulating air pollution data and its lack of enforcement of regulations. Over the past five years, it has seen improvements in levels of some pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, but others such as small particulate matter – or PM 2.5 – have got worse.
Beijing is surrounded by mountains to the west and northeast, and pollution levels vary wildly depending on the wind’s direction. North winds tend to bring blue skies, but those from the south and the east – heavily industrialised areas – bring stifling smog. Officials say a quarter of its air pollution is blown in from surrounding areas.
“China’s air pollution is not a one-city problem, but a regional problem,” said Zhou Rong, a climate pollution campaigner for Greenpeace. “If Beijing fixes its pollution problem but the neighbouring areas continue to pollute, then it is a big problem.”
Ms Zhou estimates that coal use in neighbouring Hebei province – from which Beijing draws most of its electricity – will increase 15 per cent next year. Even as Beijing burns less coal inside city limits as it uses more gas, it will still draw the majority of its electricity from coal-fired power stations in Hebei.
Poor enforcement has been another challenge for cleaning up the air. Relatively powerless environmental authorities often lack the authority to hand out meaningful fines to polluters. Getting state-owned oil companies on board has also been tough.
While Beijing has oil refineries that specifically produce fuel to its higher standards, industry executives say Sinopec and CNPC have dragged their feet on raising fuel standards across China because of the higher cost.
The opacity surrounding Beijing’s air pollution level also hasn’t helped matters. Although the city started reporting hourly data for small particulate matter in January, the figures are only available for a single site in western Beijing.
Officials say the monitoring centre is open to the public once a week, but the was turned away during those hours on three consecutive weeks. Beijing officials also declined to answer questions about the city’s environmental policies.
Public distrust of official pollution statistics is high. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, authorities manipulated pollution data to increase the number of “blue sky days”, according to Steven Andrews, a US environmental consultant.
Last autumn, public anger mounted when Beijing’s official air pollution measurements diverged widely from readings taken at the US embassy, which indicated hazardous levels of pollution.
The outburst of complaints forced China to promise to include small particulate matter in its nationwide pollution reporting from 2016. Beijing will also spend more than $6m this year purchasing equipment to measure the smaller particles, according to state-run media.
An Feng, head of the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation in Beijing, said Beijing residents have become a lot more aggressive over the past couple of years in complaining about air quality that they previously just accepted.
“Now people think it is personal, that it is their right to have blue skies. It’s not enough to accumulate personal wealth. If you don’t have clean air, it doesn’t matter.”
Additional reporting by Gwen Chen in Beijing