Thursday, September 4, 2008

what will happen on september 21st?

In my last post, I described how international media and conversation about Beijing's air largely went silent starting around the second week of the Olympics. However, local conversation here in Beijing has been anything but quiet. If anything, just as foreigners began to lose interest in the seeming non-story of Beijing's lack of air pollution, the local buzz about the improved air quality was just starting to gain momentum.

First, a little background: in August, 2008, Beijing had the cleanest air in 10 years, with the "density of major pollutants cut by 45%" during the month. The data is in and the results (and the air) are clear - the temporary measures to reduce air pollution in Beijing worked.

I remember when the temporary measures were announced back in June, I had mixed reactions. While on the one hand I was personally excited for two months of breathing clean air and riding my bike on gridlock-free streets, as an environmental professional I was disappointed that such temporary policies were needed in the first place. Clearly, the preferred solution would have been the implementation of stringent, permanent air pollution control policies that would have ensured sustainable, Olympics-approved air quality without the need for stop-gap measures. As I contemplated the potential results of the temporary policies, I asked many of my friends and colleagues what they thought would happen on September 21st (the first day after the temporary bans end). At that time (late June), virtually everyone's unanimous response was that Beijing would simply revert back to the same old smog that we had all become used to. In other words, most people I asked thought there would be no long term impacts of the temporary policies.

But I think those of us who have lived in non-polluted cities (please allow me to use the phrase "seen the light," meaning lived in a place where you can't look directly at the sun without burning your eyes, as you often can in Beijing) always held out one great hope: that Beijing's residents and politicians would be inspired; that they would experience life with crystal clear blue skies every day and wouldn't want to go back.

And over the past week or two in Beijing, the most amazing thing has happened: it seems that hope is being fulfilled. Media articles, blog posts, and chat forum polls are filled with discussion on how to keep the air quality this good, with much specific debate on whether or not the odd/even car ban should be made permanent.
I'm happy - ecstatic - that these discussions are happening, and that the citizens of Beijing are taking direct interest in and action on air quality. I am even more ecstatic that, so far, the government is open to the opinions and suggestions of the people.

Regarding the permanence of the odd/even car ban, I think it is natural and expected that this should be the focus of the discussion, as this is the single temporary policy that has affected individual citizens the most. However, while I hate to inject any negativity into what I consider to be a wonderful development of citizen environmental activism in China, I feel I must point out that a permanent odd/even car ban may not be the best long term strategy to maintain the air quality we saw over the month of August. For one thing, it is unclear right now how much the air quality improvement can be attributed to the vehicle reduction (as opposed to the factory closures and construction halting). For another thing, as was pointed out on Time's China blog, such a policy could end up having the opposite desired effect, depending on the resulting purchase and use of second cars.

To summarize: hurray for the people in Beijing for demanding that this air quality continue, for the Chinese media for publishing their demands, and for the Chinese government for listening. But let's make sure this energy and drive are directed in the right directions. And what are those right directions? Well, Alex Pasternack has a great start up on Treehugger: 10 Ways Beijing (and Other Cities) Can Keep Its Skies Blue and Road Gridlock-Free.


Rob said...


Cool post. I have to say I've been avoiding this subject since the haze blew in, and the dust started getting in my eyes as I ride down the street again...

Call me cynical, but I think on Septemeber 21, things will start going back to the way they were. As you and others have said, cars aren't even the biggest source of junky air quality that can be seen around Beijing.

A lot of it has to do with construction - and construction-related vehicles at night (remember Beijing's air quality is historically worst at 2:30am?). And factories, etc. I think it's easy for pundits to say that factories will need to demonstrate pollution control wisdom before they can reopen, but as soon as that starts affecting people's ability to earn a living, that will quickly fall to the wayside as it even does in our own countries (different situation at home, but same phenomenon). Are factory owners willing to increase their costs so much, especially after losing 2 months of profit-earning work?

I'm not sure if you ever covered it in your blog, but on the Chinese calendar, August the 7th (solar) just happened to be July 7th (lunar) which also just happens to be the first day of "li qiu" - the beginning of autumn. Anyway, the "Origins of Chinese Science and Technology" by Chunjiang Fu, et al, for example, explain that after that day in the lunar calendar, temperatures start to cool.

Could the weather (which we see every year in Beijing) have been helped along significantly by the simple fact that autumn came along? Mid-autumn festival is just around the corner now!

Or maybe I'm just superstitious and crazy?

Vance said...

Rob, you're cynical, superstitious, and crazy! Ha, just kidding. I see your perspective; it is hard to imagine that economics won't trump environment come the end of September, especially after (as you point out) two months of lost time. But we can always hope...

Regarding li qiu, a friend was actually just asking me some questions about that and was preparing to publish some research findings along the lines of your question. If I see her final report I'll let you know.

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