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Beijing: clean on the inside, dirty on the outside
10 June 2008 Hervé Bonnaveira

Crossing a megalopolis by bike gives you a good idea of how polluted it is. Arriving in the Chinese capital from the South we followed a long line of thermal power stations and factory chimneys, which turned our totobobo anti-pollution filters black after 6 hours of use. But once we entered the city of 15 million, crossing its six ring roads and arriving on Tiananmen Square didn’t pose problems when it came to pollution, as the light grey colour of our mask filters shows (see photo below). As we left Beijing we were spared the pollution on the first day, crossing the Great Wall in a setting of lush green hills, but soon found ourselves back in the soot-blackened industrial countryside as we continued North to Inner Mongolia.

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Pollution mask filters before, inside and after Beijing, each one after 6 hours of pedalling

Benjamin Guinot, a French air pollution researcher, has been working in collaboration with the municipality of Beijing for the last five years. To better gauge the Chinese capital’s air quality he installed a “Lidar” (Leosphere) laser measurement apparatus in the city. He explains that while Chinese and Western urban dwellers all suffer from air pollution, the nature of the pollution is very different in China: the principal pollutants in Chinese cities are fine suspended particles, while in Europe it is ozone.
“These particles are emitted in the process of carbon combustion, whether it’s for domestic or industrial needs, with a significant contribution of pollutants from China’s booming road traffic."
The smallest particles which penetrate deep into the lungs - those with a diameter of under 10 micrometres, known as PM10 - are present in disturbingly high concentrations in Beijing. Concentrations of PM10 are 10 times higher than those found in Paris, for example, says Benjamin Guinot.
He notes that the situation is improving, however:
“Every day, Beijing publishes an atmpspheric pollution index (API) which differentiates between "blue sky days" (API<100) and those when the sky was hidden behind a cloud of pollution. In 1998, the Chinese capital enjoyed 100 blue sky days, while in 2007 the number rose to 245. The objective for 2008 is 255 blue sky days.

Beijingers are increasingly aware of their health and well-being, although air quality still seems an issue they feel is out of their control. Even the prospect of anti-pollution masks - one way of ensuring that the air you breathe while cycling or walking is clean - doesn’t seem to appeal to them. Julien Chol, who imports Respro anti-pollution masks into the capital, complaints of a mostly expat clientele and not much of a share in the huge market presented by local Beijingers.
Those who have lived in Beijing longer can testify that Beijing’s pollution problems have changed a lot over the years. Odile Pierquin, whose flat we stayed in, has been in the city since 1974.
"It’s logical that you saw so many factories as you cycled across the Hebei province [which surrounds Beijing]. All those factories were once concentrated in the Shou Gang district of Beijing, in the city’s immediate suburbs. Many have already been moved out of the city and the rest are also being progressively displaced. All the coal from the mining district West of Beijing is now being burned in the plains outside of the city and the energy is transmitted to the city. The result - air pollution in the city centre has decreased, but it has risen in the surrounding areas.”

Benjamin Guinot gives us a few more examples which demonstrate the improving air quality in central Beijing:

“Even coal use for domestic purposes (heating, cooking) is now forbidden inside the 3rd ring road, and is replaced by natural gas. The Beijing bus fleet is now the biggest in the world running on GLP and taxis are being also forced to convert to this fuel which does not emit particles - but does emit gases, in particular CO2. Industry is now using a type of coal containing less sulphur and all the factories in the municipality are equipped with sulphur dioxide filters inside the chimneys - while only 5 to 10% of all factories have these filters in the rest of China.”

Beijing’s fight with air pollution didn’t start on the day when the city won the Olympic bid, although the Olympics certainly reinforced and accelerated that policy. During the Olympics additional measures will be brought in, such as the alternation of cars with even and odd registration plates to ease traffic. Beijing’s numerous building sites, another source of particle pollution, will come to a stand still for the duration of the event. Still, according to Benjamin Guinot, despite all its efforts, Beijing will find it hard to host a truly green games.

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