Beijing: An answer to the air pollution problem?

The air pollution in Beijing is well known, with the first ‘red alert’ in the city’s history being issued in December of 2015, and the “Airpocalypse Now” headlines that followed. One idea that is currently being looked at is a congestion charge on vehicles in the city, which is home to over 5 million cars – and rising. Li Sufang, member of Beijing’s Municipal Development and Reform Commission, confirmed that the charge is being looked at as a way to control pollution in the city, which is caused mostly by vehicle emissions and coal burning by the residents.

There are other considerations to take into account as, despite being located on a plain, Beijing has stretched out enough to meet the mountains that now surround it, which in turn has meant that the particles of pollution become trapped in the atmosphere in and around the city. Coupled with the lack of wind in Beijing over recent months – due to the El Nino effect – and you have a perfect storm (somewhat ironically) of conditions to prevent the pollution from being dispersed. However, it is right that the Municipal Development and Reform Commission should look at tackling the root causes of the problem, and the sheer volume of cars on the Beijing roads should be addressed. The Beijing road system, of course, is based around the concentric ring roads that encircle the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and it is this system that is also part of the problem.

Public transport is already very cheap in Beijing, and the subway system delivered 3.41 billion trips in 2014 – the most in the world, so it is hardly underused. Instead, it would take the ‘restructuring of the energy and industrial sectors to successfully tackle air pollution’, according to Chai Fahe, Vice President of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. China has already shut down some of the more inefficient power plants, and committed many billions of dollars to clean energy, but despite falling coal demand, the love affair continues: the government issued environmental approvals to 155 coal-fired power plants from January to September 2015. In Beijing, the municipal government installed new natural-gas heating facilities in 2011, in order to phase out coal-based heating sources. Yet the majority of heating is provided by coal-burners, which are often burning cheap, low quality coal, heavy in pollutants.

The solution to the air pollution problem in Beijing, which we can see as a microcosm of China’s own air pollution problems, is not simple. It will require a change in mindset and habits by the residents, as much as anything else, as shifting away from cars – a symbol of independence and wealth – and beating the coal habit will not be easy. Introducing a congestion charge is one way of kickstarting that shift away, and following it up with measures to reduce vehicle emissions and the use of coal will also be important. Cleaning up the air through weaning the country off the use of coal should be the centrepiece of Xi Jinping’s “ecocivilization,” rather than just a corollary.



Sounding the Siren, News China, March 2016

北京收取拥堵费“正在研究中”, 中国环保新闻网, January 2016


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