Blue Sky Days in Beijing

Is it my imagination, or are the skies over Beijing becoming bluer? More than at any time in recent memory, it seems that Beijingers are being treated to more and more blue sky days. So much so that I have been asking my friends whether they have noticed the same.

The first sign that it wasn’t just my imagination playing tricks came in the form of a notice that I received from the Capital Club on June 12, “Breathtaking Views From Your Club Today,” it read. Founded in 1994, the Capital Club is the oldest business club in Beijing. The Club is located on the 50th floor of what used to be the tallest building in the city, and when the skies are clear, the views can indeed be breathtaking.

In all of my years as a member, though, I can’t ever remember the Capital Club advertising this feature. Nonetheless, it was good marketing this time around. Written over a glorious view of Beijing from one of the club’s dining rooms, the inside of the invitation read, “Dear Member, Come to your club today for a great value business lunch and enjoy the fabulous views of the mountains surrounding Beijing.”

Thanks to the Asia Society, we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence alone to determine whether Beijing’s air quality is improving, or whether the Capital Club was merely capitalizing on a one-time event. The Asia Society has a website that provides statistical and pictorial evidence regarding Beijing’s efforts to clean up its air.

As the site explains in “Statistically Speaking”:

Rapid economic development in China has led to significant increases in emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.  In 2008, China surpassed the United States as the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases by volume.  On a per capita basis however, Americans emit five times as much greenhouse gas as Chinese.

The Chinese government terms all days with an Air Pollution Index (API) of 100 or less “blue sky days.” An API of 100, according the Chinese scale, is “slightly polluted.”  The government goal was to have 256, or 70 percent, blue sky days in 2008.  In 1998, Beijing recorded 100 “blue sky days;” in 2007, 246 were recorded.

The Air pollution index (API), published by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, is derived from measurements of five pollutants: Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, PM10, Carbon Monoxide and Ozone.  The average concentration for each pollutant is calculated daily and the concentration of the pollutant with the highest API (0-500) will become that day’s major pollutant, recorded as that day’s API figure. In Beijing, PM10–particulate matter 10 microns or smaller–is the major pollutant most days.

According to the Asia Society, the Chinese have invested about 120 billion yuan ($17.9 billion) over the last ten years to improve air quality in the capital.  Although the levels of many major pollutants like Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrogen Dioxide are now at target levels, the concentration of PM10, or inhalable particulate matter, remains above national targets.

How is Beijing doing in its fight against air pollution? The site’s “Room With a View” section provides statistical and pictorial data. For the last several years, the Asia Society’s photographer has been taking daily photos of Beijing’s skies from the same room. For each day over the past several years, a picture of the sky, along with statistical data on pollution, is displayed. For example, the site explains that Beijing had 25 blue sky days with an average API of 83.2 during the month of May, 2009. For reference purposes, the worst air quality was reported on December 28, 2007 when the API was 500 (ugh!). The best occurred on September 23, 2008 when the API was only 12.

Although I didn’t rigorously analyze the data, a quick scroll through the past several years of statistics and pictures seems to indicate that Beijing’s air quality is improving. For the first ten days in June, Beijing was ten for ten in terms of blue sky days with an average API of 59.6. No wonder the Capital Club saw fit to advertise.

2 Responses to “Blue Sky Days in Beijing”

  1. It is really good to see that the air quality improvement in Beijing has been registered and recognised by the people who reside in the city. I have been living in Beijing for nearly 10 years and by the time I left one year ago, I had to say the pollution was less than it has been. However I reckoned then that it was largely due to the Olympic syndrome and it would be getting back soon after the game was finished.

    I have stayed in UK for nearly a year and enjoyed the fresh air very much. Honestly I do have concerns before I plan my future career. Do I really want to go back to BJ and inhale the dirty air?It is a really encouraging article from the view point of resident who noticed the difference!

  2. sandymayun,

    In preparation for the Olympics, China took many short term measures to clean up Beijing’s air—odd/even license plate system, temporary plant closings etc.—but it also took longer term steps such as adopting stricter emission standards, permanent plant closings and tougher enforcement of existing pollution laws. In March of 2008, I wrote a blog which said that one legacy of the Olympics might very well be a greener China legacy

    WE’re now starting to see the impact.