Blown Away: Blue Skies Over Beijing

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Back from vacation and on the fifth day we have blue skies and sunshine, as the intermittent Time Beijing BureauCam records. As Austin noted below, the four day banning of roughly half of the vehicles on Beijing’s roads didn’t seem to have made much impact yesterday. Today, with the aid of some helpful wind gusts in the morning, we don’t exactly have a cerulean vault stretching on forever but definitely enough blue skies and sunshine to bring cheer to the most lugubrious soul. Today’s relatively fine conditions (see below) underline the role that geography and microclimate play in dispersing pollution, as the problems of Mexico City and Los Angeles attest. (My first reporting job was as an intern in Riverside, California, a city that had the misfortune to be located some 35 miles due west east (thanks Steve) of Los Angeles down a relatively narrow valley. When the wind blew in our direction, it funneled all the exhaust fumes from the city directly towards Riverside and made that fairly inoffensive suburb the most polluted part of the region on a regular basis. I can still remember driving through gloomy, smog-smothered days that were as bad or worse than Beijing’s)

Still, there’s no excusing the role of the automobile. Officials I have talked to at the BJEPB said that while the figure varies depending on how you assess it, around one third of Beijing’s air pollution is directly attributable to vehicle emissions, tho they admitted that it could be much more, up to half. Other people I speak with who should know–including one retired senior official from the State environmental Protection Administration– say the figure is closer to 65 per cent. So, without the wind, it would have been possible that four days of traffic restriction to have almost no effect on pollution levels. And in fact, despite the blue sky, the API for today stood at a unhealthy 116. Of course the restrictions helped enormously in lowering the amount of crap there to be blown away by today’s light winds, but the fact the API was still in unhealthy territory is a testament to the gravity of the problem…and a forewarning of problems next year .