Beijing sees dramatic reduction in air pollution but residents wonder if the change is sustainable

Beijing sees dramatic reduction in air pollution but residents wonder if the change is sustainable

Beijing sees dramatic reduction in air pollution but residents wonder if the change is sustainable

Updated 19 January 2018, 18:00 AEDT

Authorities in Beijing say a major anti-pollution drive has, for now at least, cleaned up the city's once notorious air but some residents have been left out in the cold and many wonder if the change is sustainable.

A major anti-pollution drive has, for now at least, cleaned up Beijing's once notorious air, authorities in the Chinese capital say.

Key points:

  • Beijing's air pollution particles have dropped by a third over five years
  • Authorities say favourable winter weather has helped get the city across the line
  • But some villagers have been forced to temporarily endure the winter without heating

This month Beijing's Government released figures showing the most dangerous air pollution particles, known as PM2.5, have dropped by a third over the past five years.

Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau said the average reading for the smallest and most dangerous PM2.5 particulate matter was down to 58 micrograms per cubic metre, reaching a five-year goal of getting below 60.

Authorities say very favourable weather in late 2017 during the onset of winter helped get the city across the line.

"Five years ago many people, many 'insiders' were concerned that 60 was too ambitious a target to achieve," said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs — a non-profit organisation.

"If there wasn't a [Government] 10-point action plan, you could argue this couldn't happen naturally."

The national battle against air pollution commenced in 2013 amid horrendous smog in the country's north, and has seen industrial factories targeted, inspections increased and restrictions on households burning coal in winter.

"Some of the dirty factories have been ordered to either improve their pollution control or they've been shut down," Mr Ma said.

As the five-year deadline loomed at the end of last year, thousands of inspectors from across China were sent to enforce regulations in areas near Beijing.

A construction industry revival had threatened to wipe out much of the environmental gains.

Officials in Beijing's neighbouring province Hebei began enforcing a ban on coal burning — a traditional way of heating homes.

But a natural gas shortage in some areas left thousands of villagers to temporarily endure the winter without heating.

Others said the alternatives to coal are costly.

"This winter has been cold because many people feel electric heating is quite expensive. So they're just using it sparingly," Liu Songmei, a baker in the town of Zhuozhou, about an hour and a half drive from the capital, said.

"But back when we burned coal, we were all coughing every day. I think the costs of change are worth it."

Residents hopeful the improvement won't be short-lived

While Beijing's average air quality improved, it is still almost six times above the World Health Organisation's recommended level.

And while most major cities are enjoying cleaner air, some have gone backwards.

Last year the north-eastern industrial province of Heilongjiang saw PM2.5 levels rise by 10 per cent.

Smaller increases were seen in several south-eastern provinces.

Residents of the Beijing are hopeful that the clearer air won't be temporary.

"It makes me feel so happy to see the sun and blue sky every day," office worker Li Ting said.

"The only reason I'm wearing a mask now is because I'm cold."