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.
How did China do it? And how did the country bring down its pollution while its economy continued to surge? The answers involve significant public pressure, along with measures that the Chinese leadership has been uniquely suited to impose: strong central government edicts, mandatory air quality targets and nationwide monitoring to be sure those targets were met.
From 2008 to 2022: An Olympic comparison
China made a very public effort to clean its air in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Games’ success was a high priority for the country’s leadership — and smog-filled skies were a recipe for failure. The government shut down steel and cement plants around the capital and restricted driving in Beijing; drivers with license plates ending in odd numbers were allowed to drive one day, and those with license plates ending in even numbers the next. But those efforts were temporary, a Band-Aid approach that helped tame pollution during the 2008 Games. The smog returned soon after.
The country reached a pollution tipping point in the years that followed. Smog levels soared as China’s economy grew at a breakneck pace, as did soot from smokestacks that ringed several of its major cities. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing began posting data on the city’s air quality, fueling a local and ultimately global discussion about the smog and its health impact. “The public concern and outrage over air pollution reached a boiling point in the winter of 2012 and 2013,” said Shen.
That outrage forced the government to take notice — and then, to take concerted, nationwide action to deal with the problem. And the results are plain to see — from a look to the skies or from a look at the numbers.
Globally, air quality is often measured using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, a calculation of five major pollutants that ranks air quality from 0 (the cleanest) to 500, which is considered hazardous and comes with warnings to avoid all outdoor activity. The WHO and other organizations focus on PM 2.5 — particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less, a fraction of the size of a grain of sand.
In 2013, most Beijing residents knew the air quality was poor, but the numbers were staggering. A level of 993 — literally off the AQI charts — was reached that January. (In New York City that same day the level was 19.) China’s average level of PM 2.5 was 85 micrograms per cubic meter that year, 17 times the WHO standard.
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.)
The capital’s success was no aberration. The entire northeast rust belt of China, home to much of the country’s — and the world’s — steel production, has seen a significant clearing of the air. In the northeast region that includes Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province, pollution fell almost as much as it did in the capital itself. Nationwide, pollution dropped by 40 percent from 2013 to 2020. (Other regions in China weren’t as severely polluted to begin with, so they didn’t see as big a drop.)
The change has been clear to see at the three Olympic venues for this year’s Winter Games — Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. Had the 2014 Winter Olympics been held at these venues, skiers might have had a hard time seeing the gates on the course; athletes competing in outdoor competitions might have been gasping for air. Back then, pollution was close to its peak levels — Yanqing, for example, enjoyed only four “good” air days in Feb. 2014; 14 days were in the “unhealthy” to “hazardous” range, according to the World Air Quality Index Project. At this year’s games, the Olympians jumped and raced under mostly clear skies.
How China did it
How did China change things so dramatically, so quickly? One of the most significant factors had to do with the nature of the problem: Chinese citizens across the country could see the smog and feel it in their lungs — and that awareness was heightened by the U.S. Embassy’s publication of air quality data. In other words, this wasn’t a problem the government could ignore.
“Air pollution control was one of the issues on the central government’s agenda,” said Shen, “but the public’s call for clean air has tremendously altered its priority over others and made the war against air pollution a nationwide campaign.”
With pollution elevated to a national priority, the government took swift action. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called the clean air campaign a “war against pollution” in 2014, and Chinese leaders acted accordingly. The National Air Pollution Action Plan, established in 2013, set binding air pollution targets for various regions of China to meet by 2017. The government laid out comprehensive steps to achieving those goals, including requiring key urban regions to cut coal consumption, reducing extra steel production capacity and switching to electric or natural gas rather than coal-based home heating.
It was a typical approach for China’s Communist Party: identifying a national priority, setting goals and ordering local officials to meet them.
Cities and provinces answered the call, pursuing their targets using their own tactics. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong began restricting the number of cars on the road through an annual quota on new license plates. Beijing shut down the last coal power plant in the city.
Critically, the national plan made clear that local officials would be promoted based on their air pollution improvements, not just on GDP growth. (In India, by contrast, the imperative was economic growth; that difference in priority helps explain the terrible air quality that persists in many Indian cities.) At the same time, a vast nationwide monitoring system was put in place so that air quality metrics were publicized in real time, making it hard for local government officials to manipulate the data.
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.”
Cleaner air = longer lives
The results of this “war on pollution” haven’t been limited to improvements for the Olympics and for Beijing’s skyline; less smog means a major health boost for China’s population.
According to the WHO, every year, air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths. The tiny particles from burning coal and car exhaust get embedded in lungs and in the bloodstream; exposure to air pollution drives up the risk of many ailments, including lung cancer and heart disease. It has also been shown to impact infant brain development.
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.