Change in PM2.5 pollution across China in 2017, year over year. Graphic: John Sopinski / The Globe and Mail

By Nathan Vanderklippe
26 January 2018

(The Globe and Mail) – The sight of sharp horizons and cerulean skies in the Chinese capital was, not so long ago, rare enough that it merited special designation.

There was "APEC Blue," around the time Beijing hosted world leaders in 2014. There was "Parade Blue" for a 2015 military march past Tiananmen Square. There were multiple instances of "Two Sessions Blue" around annual political meetings – each permutation of blue the temporary result of government fiat. Once the parades, the foreign dignitaries and the politicians dispersed, the redolence of burnt coal returned.

But in the past few months, Beijingers have been toying with a less-familiar idea: Could blue skies be here to stay? Or has China's ability to manufacture blue skies just grown more skilled, producing clean air around Beijing but leaving others mired in a toxic atmosphere? Both, it seems, are true.

Winter has typically brought the thickest smog to northern China, as coal-fired heating furnaces belch out particulate matter. During the worst episodes, flights are cancelled, schools are closed and people are afflicted with a dread that each breath is filling their lungs with carcinogens.

Some parts of China have remained true to form, with 2017 air pollution levels rising in eight Chinese provinces. Other areas have suffered icy chills, as buildings went cold without coal to heat them, the product of overambitious mandates to use natural-gas heating, even when gas lines had yet to be installed.

But nationwide, pollution fell 6.5 per cent last year, the Chinese government says – and nowhere has been better than Beijing, where nearby mountains have been visible in crisp relief, the snap of winter's cold unsullied by floating soot. […]

Elsewhere, though, delight has been harder to come by, as progress in Beijing raises suspicions that the city has merely exported the smog elsewhere.

For years now, heavy industry has been pushed away from the capital region. About 1,200 plants had been banished from the city by the end of 2016, according to Pengfei Xie, deputy regional director for East Asia at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

So when rising commodity prices prompted an industrial surge – China's raw coal output rose 3.2 per cent last year, while 2017 steel production hit an all-time record, with November steel-mill profits touching a 20-year high – the resulting smog billowed up far from Beijing. [more]

As Beijing's skies clear up, smog descends elsewhere in China

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