Skip to content Skip to footer

Beijing air ‘cleaner than London’: scientists astonished

  • China managed to reduce air pollution in seven years by as much as the US did in three decades, says new report.
  • The forceful implementation of policies to target factories and transportation has accounted for 75% of the reduction of air pollution – not just in China, but globally. 
  • The speed of the reductions in airborne particulate matter have changed the direction of worldwide statistics and “is without historical precedent globally”, U.S. climate scientists say. Anna Tang reports

WHAT reply do I get when I mention a trip to Beijing?

“Eww! Why would you go there? The place is filthy – you can barely breathe! I heard that living there is the equivalent of smoking forty cigarettes a day.”

How to react? I would either:

a) Give her a light shove;

b) Roll my eyes; or

c) Toss my head back and laugh.

In fact, I say: “Stop exaggerating. There’s no way it can be that bad.”

She is partially right—the air is far from clean.

But I am mostly right. An infamous 2015 report in the Economist claimed that a day in Beijing was the equivalent of inhaling 40 cigarettes worth of pollution. This was widely shared, and reprinted in the Daily Mail and many other media sources.


However, it was not true. This was easily debunked by scientists in 2015. Back then it was suggested that the actual levels indicated that living in Beijing may be the equivalent of smoking one-fifth of one cigarette every day, or one cigarette every five days.

Not as bad as the Economist claimed, but still pretty harmful in itself, especially for the vulnerable population.

The air is not perfect, but the improvement is clear. Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash


Fast forward to seven years later, and where do we stand with regards to China’s air pollution? The result is a miracle, and not a small one.

“China managed to reduce air pollution in seven years by as much as the US did in three decades”

Beijing’s government took a proactive approach into clearing its skies in preparation for the 2022 winter Olympic games, which ran in February this year. Their determination and forceful implementation of policies to target factories and transportation has in fact, managed to account for 75% of the reduction of air pollution – not just in China, but globally. 

Somehow, China managed to reduce air pollution in seven years by as much as the US did in three decades, a University of Chicago study reported. Without China’s efforts, the planet would have seen average pollution levels increase instead of fall, says the report by the university’s Energy Policy Institute. “The air people in Beijing breathe today is dramatically cleaner than it was during the last Olympics, allowing residents to live longer, healthier lives,” said the Institute’s Michael Greenstone. “The speed of these reductions is without historical precedent globally.” Click here for a PDF of the full report.


What was the secret? Restrictions on coal burning, limitations on car usage, and large investment in renewable energy, researchers say. With practical strategies allocated to achieving long and short term targets alike, China is well on its way to transforming from a bad example into a good example for change. 

And yet, let’s face it, China does not receive nearly enough credit for this amazing feat. 

China is often identified as the world’s worst polluter (see image below, from the Economist). However, the response to that should be to say: Of course it is: what would you expect since it is the largest manufacturer and hosts the largest population? For a fair picture, see the same statistic viewed on a per person basis: China is not even in the per capita top 40, as measured by Worldometer.

It can be argued that no major country is doing enough to fight climate change, including China – yet the Chinese are making measurable efforts. They began by planting billions of trees. While the world worries about the erosion of the Amazon, forest coverage in China has increased by 12% since the 1980s. There’s also been much progress in developing wind and solar energy – and producing smaller, safer, nuclear power plants.

The International Energy Agency deemed China to be a major contributor for bringing down global costs for solar photovoltaics, many of which are made in Xinjiang. The country has also tightened restrictions, implementing strict laws and higher penalties. 

The aim is to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality in 2060. China also actively participates in global talks to combat climate change, and reprimanded the U.S Supreme Court for its decision to constrain the power of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Beijing at night. Photo by Martin Fu on Unsplash

Finally, the Chinese educate the younger generation about the importance of the environment, preparing them to create a cleaner future. It is mandatory for primary and secondary schools across China to provide a “green education” concerning environmental topics. 


Yet, despite all this, the stereotype persists: the tales of children never having seen a blue sky in their life, of air pollution in Hong Kong being blown in from the mainland, of the Chinese being involuntary smokers.

Despite my associate’s comments, my trip to Beijing was rather delightful. The city was not enveloped in thick smog at all, and the sky was reasonably clear. When will the real story be told?

Slowly, the truth will emerge. Back in Hong Kong, a friend showed me a recent headline in Bloomberg: “London pollution worse than Beijing…”

Image at the top by Li Yang on Unsplash

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

Whoops, you're not connected to Mailchimp. You need to enter a valid Mailchimp API key.