By Lili Pike
When Eileen Gu launched off a giant ramp at the Beijing Winter Olympics, you may have noticed an odd backdrop: a series of giant cement cooling towers on the outskirts of China’s capital. The towers belong to the shuttered steel mill of corporate giant Shougang Group, or Capital Steel. It may have seemed a grim, industrial setting compared to the Alpine landscapes of other Winter Games, but those towers are actually symbols of an environmental success story: the remarkably steep drop in air pollution across China.
The Shougang plant shut down in 2011 to help clear the capital’s notoriously foul air. Around that time, China’s smog reached a crisis point — its air pollution hit dangerous levels, with frequent episodes of what came to be known as an “airpocalypse” in 2013. The country’s largest cities were among the most polluted on Earth. Public outcry over the health effects reached a point at which the government felt it needed to act.
What followed — a significant clearing of the skies in under a decade — represents a huge victory for the country’s environment and public health. Pollution levels dropped by more than half in the capital from 2013 to 2020; neighboring provinces recorded similar declines. “One of my friends said, ‘Previously, we counted the good [air] days, but now, we count the bad [air] days,’” Shen Xinyi, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told Grid.
To put the improvements in perspective, China’s percentage drop in pollution took decades to achieve in the U.S., and China accounted for more than three-quarters of the global decline in air pollution between 2013 and 2020, according to a recently published report from the University of Chicago.
By 2020, Beijing’s PM 2.5 levels had plummeted to 38, a 55 percent drop, according to the University of Chicago study. And the progress didn’t end there. In 2021, pollution levels fell further, allowing Beijing to meet China’s national air quality standard for the first time. (China’s standard for air quality are not as strict as the WHO’s.)
Guojun He, an associate professor of economics at the University of Hong Kong and a co-author of the University of Chicago study, said one of the main reasons for the success of the campaign was “that the central government of China is really powerful, so it can have all those ‘iron fist’ policies or command and control policies.”
The sweeping policy push hasn’t been without its stumbles. Most notably, in the fall of 2017, when the region around Beijing was running out of time to meet its targets, government officials took aggressive actions without considering their full impact. Among other measures, they banned coal-fired heaters before new natural gas lines were hooked up, leading to reports of children nearly freezing in schools and families left without heat in their frigid homes. And in some cases, when polluting firms were shut down abruptly, companies protested and lost revenue.
“Those are unfortunate, I would say, local failures,” said He. “They pushed it too fast and didn’t really consider the basic needs, the basic demand for energy consumption.”
A 2017 study put the health effects of air pollution in China in stark terms. An international research team used the natural divide between the regions north of the Huai River in China — where the government provided free or heavily subsidized winter heating, mostly by burning coal — and south of the river, where centralized heat was not provided, to study the impact of pollution. They found that life expectancy in the coal-burning north was 3.1 years less than in the south.
The recent improvements have already gone a long way toward closing that life expectancy gap. In the University of Chicago study, researchers found that Beijing residents can now expect to live 4.6 years longer than they would have with air pollution at the 2013 levels. The national life expectancy has also been boosted by two years.
The “war on pollution” isn’t over
There is still work to be done. Despite all its progress, China began waging its “war on pollution” when smog levels were very high, and the air remains unhealthy. Beijing’s air pollution is still seven times higher than the WHO standard for healthy air quality, and about three times the level in Los Angeles.
The University of Chicago research team found that if China were to meet the WHO guideline, the country’s citizens would gain another 2.6 years of life expectancy. However, experts say that China has already plucked many of the low-hanging fruit in its campaign: using clean technology, including pollution scrubbers to make coal plants run with less harmful emissions and improving auto fuel standards. Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, wrote recently that the next battles in China’s air pollution war will be more challenging and will intersect with its chief climate challenge: China will need to start reducing its use of fossil fuels altogether.
That means many more coal and steel plants like Shougang’s will need to retire — or be transformed into ski jumps — before China’s “war” is won.