By Gao Baiyu

Over the 14 years between the 2008 Summer Olympics and the recent winter games, the biggest change in people’s impressions of Beijing might be its gradually bluer skies. In 2008, many Chinese people couldn’t tell fog from smog, or say what PM2.5 pollution was. But now in 2022, no weather forecast is complete without data on PM2.5 – harmful fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres wide – while blue skies and fluffy white clouds are no longer a strange sight.

In 2013, information on PM2.5 was added to China’s annual reports on the state of its environment. A Ministry of Ecology and Environment report shows that average PM2.5 levels nationwide have since fallen from 72 micrograms (μg) per cubic metre in 2013 to 30 μg/m3 in 2021 – a 58% fall and a major improvement in air quality.

“The air people in Beijing breathe today is dramatically cleaner than it was during the last Olympics, allowing residents to live longer, healthier lives,” said Michael Greenstone, professor at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). “The speed of these reductions is without historical precedent globally.”

Recent research from EPIC says that China’s efforts on air pollution have accounted for three-quarters of the reduction in airborne pollutants worldwide, and, if sustained, will increase the life expectancy of its citizens.

From 2008 to 2022
There were notable changes in China’s approach to air pollution between the two Olympics. In 2008, targeted short-term measures were used to bring about a quick improvement in air quality. But in 2013, longer-term and more sustainable programmes were put in place, and air quality gradually improved – but at significant financial and social cost.

To ensure the 2008 Games were a “Green Olympics”, China took rapid, radical measures. These included shutting some chemical and cement factories near Beijing, and, for several weeks before, during and after the games, taking half of the city’s cars off the roads on any given day. According to a paper from 2013, China spent US$10 billion on these measures, and managed to bring air pollution in Beijing down by 29.6% during the games, compared with the previous year. The researchers described the feat as “the largest natural experiment in air cleaning” in Olympic history.

But such efforts could not last long. In the following years, air pollution continued to worsen, peaking at its highest ever in 2013. According to EPIC’s data, average PM2.5 levels in Beijing in 2013 were 85 μg/m3 – almost 2.4 times the applicable national standard, and 17 times the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline.

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