By Keith Bradsher
When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, it temporarily closed factories across much of northeastern China to briefly tame the city’s choking smog. But as the city hosts the Winter Olympics, the air is now much cleaner.
Although Beijing had another bout of severe air pollution on Sunday, a strong wind swept away the smog on Monday afternoon. The city has had exceptionally clean air since then, meeting even the most stringent of five levels of World Health Organization standards for very fine particles that can penetrate deep in the lungs.
Data released on Jan. 4 by the Beijing municipal government showed broad improvement. For all of last year, very fine particles still averaged six times the W.H.O.’s strictest standard, which many cities in the West also do not meet.
But the average last year was less than half that in 2008. And last year’s average pollution was down more than three-fifths compared with 2013, when the city’s air was at its dirtiest.
Across all of China, the concentration of extremely small particles was down two-fifths in 2020 compared with 2008, according to a study that the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago will release this week.
Beijing still has an air pollution problem. The average concentration of very fine particles in the city’s air was still nearly three times as high last year as levels typically found in Los Angeles, one of the most polluted American cities.
But when air pollution reached its peak in Beijing, in 2013, it was eight times as bad as in Los Angeles today.
This week’s study estimated that because of air quality improvements, Beijing residents could now expect to live 3.7 years longer than in 2008. Life expectancy has been raised by 4.6 years compared with 2013, when dark smog sometimes nearly blotted out the sun.
Xi Jinping, who became China’s top leader at the end of 2012, has made environmental improvements one of his main priorities. Some tactics have been drastic, such as removing coal-fired boilers for the heating of homes and schools before natural gas alternatives were available.
That left some residents and schoolchildren shivering in northeastern China four years ago.
China has closed thousands of old factories, particularly in and around Beijing, that were operating with outdated, polluting technology.