Only 15 More Years Before Beijing Has Clean Air

New government targets for PM2.5 reduction were announced yesterday, and if that pattern holds, Beijing could achieve the World Health Organization’s suggested limits of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air … sometime around 2030.

Lest we be accused of looking at the glass as half empty, the good news is that the new targets not only include Beijing but also Tianjin and the particularly filthy province of Hebei, which virtually surrounds the capital (and home to seven of the top 10 worst polluted cities in China).

The new limits have the three-headed megalopolis attempting to limit PM2.5 to 73 micrograms per cubic meter by 2017 and 64 micrograms per cubic meter by 2020.

Also, the new targets actually show that the target date to WHO-standard air has actually gotten a dozen years closer  the last time we did the math, at the beginning of 2015, our estimate was that it would be 2043 before Beijing’s air met international standards.

Truth be told, we’re just using some simple Excel forward forecasting techniques that woud not stand up to scientific or mathematical rigor. But it does give you a sense of the scale of the issue and how long it will take to solve (and why you need to start protecting yourself now rather than waiting for things to get better). On the flip side, it also shows that despite those nasty days we’ve experienced lately, the trend is headed in the right direction.

The average annual concentration of PM2.5 in Beijing in 2014 was 85.9 micrograms per cubic meter, 4 percent lower than 2013’s grim 89.5. While 2015 figures will not be available until the year is done and the number crunchers have worked their magic, using official AQI figures through yesterday as a proxy (and no, AQI is not the same thing), the air seems to have been about 2.7 percent cleaner in 2015, implying the PM2.5 average over 2015 could end up in the low 80s.

When factoring in Hebei and Tianjin, the region’s air was worse  according to the Global Times, the average PM2.5 level over the whole region in 2013 was 106 micrograms per cubic meter, significantly worse than Beijing itself (89.5). That could mean that when analyzed alone, the city of Beijing could potentially meet the WHO standard even earlier than we’re projecting.

The cities of Hebei colored in red above were 7 of the 10 worst cities in all of China for air quality in 2013. Click for a larger graphic.

When talking pollution, it’s much more than just local sources that cause us in Beijing trouble, and this is why having Tianjin and Hebei join in the fun is such welcome news. Hebei is one of Planet Earth’s major steel making centers, most of it fueled by burning coal.

And lest you become complacent regarding the health effects of PM2.5 pollution, let us grimly remind you of what the WHO has to say on the matter (emphasis ours): “Small particulate pollution have health impacts even at very low concentrations – indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed. Therefore, the WHO 2005 guideline limits aimed to achieve the lowest concentrations of PM possible.”

Ten years on and that fact remains just a sobering now as it did then and is something to keep in mind as we move into the new year.

Image: the Beijinger

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