Beijing's air quality improving, despite winter setback, official says

A woman wearing a face mask on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on Dec 26, 2015.
A woman wearing a face mask on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on Dec 26, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (Reuters) - Air quality in China's capital, Beijing, has improved over the last two years, a senior environment official said on Friday (Feb 19), despite a dramatic three-week episode of hazardous smog that drew worldwide attention last year.

The thick smog that shrouded the city for 22 days over November and December had distorted the picture of Beijing's environmental record since 2014, city official Yu Jianhua told reporters.

"Many people feel things got worse, because the impression of the pollution in December remains very deep," said Mr Yu, referring to an episode that sparked Beijing's first pollution red alerts.

The impression would have been different if the same number of heavy smog days had been scattered over several months, Mr Yu, a director at the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, told a news briefing.

Concentrations of sulphur dioxide, a gas that can cause breathing difficulties, fell 49 per cent in Beijing from 2013 to 2015, while particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres, a dangerous airborne component of smog, fell 10 per cent, Mr Yu added.

Weather conditions, including unusually high humidity and low wind speeds, had worsened the smog last year, but the authorities still needed to respond better to emergencies, Environment Minister Chen Jining told reporters on Thursday.

Mr Yu was speaking at a briefing on efforts to integrate Beijing with neighbouring Hebei province and the port city of Tianjin, a priority set by President Xi Jinping in 2014 to ease regional economic and environmental pressures and cut congestion in the capital.

The efforts include a five-year plan for integrated development until 2020 that envisages a 1,000km rail network, among other projects, as well as unified regional pollution standards.

Mr Wang Haichen, an official of Beijing's planning commission, said it aimed to shift manufacturing industries, research bodies and other organisations that have no critical reason to be in the capital to outlying cities.

Environmental concerns had prompted the authorities to force a total of 718 firms to move out of Beijing in 2015, he added.

Hebei, which produces around a quarter of China's steel, had seven of the country's 10 smoggiest cities last year, despite efforts to clean up industries and cut coal consumption.

The reluctance of China's provincial governments to pool resources with each other has fed industrial overcapacity and created huge income disparities.

Unable to lure investment in high-tech businesses, Hebei had long relied on low-end steel production to keep its economy afloat, worsening pollution and leaving it painfully exposed to China's industrial slowdown.