The 2022 Winter Olympics: What Is Beijing Doing About Air Quality?

As the 4th of February 2022 gets closer, so does China’s time to shine. The Winter Olympics is practically upon us, and as it did back in 2008, China is set to pull out all the stops for hosting this event within reason of course, as the global pandemic continues to be a very prominent feature of everyone’s lives. The good news is that this isn’t the country’s first rodeo. Back in 2008 China showed the world that it could not just provide spectacle on a level not seen before, but that it was more than willing to take the necessary steps to improve its air quality. At the time those implementations were only temporary, but they did provide a foundation upon which the country would later build upon.

It all started with the Beijing Olympics

China does have the 2008 Beijing Olympics to thank for its current take on matters pertaining to its air quality. It was after all the 2008 Beijing Olympics that really made the government take note and take action. At the time major concerns were raised over air pollution and its ability to infringe on athlete performance. As a result, a slew of restrictions was placed on polluting activities while the global spotlight shone on the city. Prior to the Games, big construction projects were placed on hiatus, numerous power plants and factories were temporarily decommissioned, and a staggering 300, 000 high polluting vehicles were done away within a timeous manner. The results were extraordinary; compared to the previous year, air quality had drastically improved by 30%. The knock-on effect was very apparent as cities in and around Beijing who had adopted the restrictions saw an impactful drop in deaths associated with cardio and respiratory diseases. Once the Games were over, the status quo was reinstated as restrictions relaxed, but what was glaringly obvious was what could be achieved through a concerted effort.

Bejing Landscape

China’s decision to get serious about air quality

Fast-forward five years to 2013 and the Chinese government had launched a national action plan to combat pollution. The plan, amongst many things, introduced such measures as the relocation of factories from densely populated areas, government subsidisation to diffuse any inclination farmers might have towards agricultural burning, and the regulation of polluting activities.

The results were and have been significant. Between 2013 and 2017 air quality in the immensely polluted northern Chinese cities improved by 35%. While there’s no discounting this incredible progress, China to this day continues to have a substantial problem with air quality. In 2017 its yearly average concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was 57 micrograms per metre cubed; that’s almost 6 times what the WHO (World Health Organisation) considers acceptable. Each year the country sees more than 1 million deaths due to questionable outdoor air quality.

Big data to the rescue!

Moving forward, China faces an uphill battle since the easiest actions have already been implemented. In order to weed out the other areas of concern and to effectively regulate and enforce the required measures, the government has turned to big data. In doing so, the coverage of air quality monitors has significantly improved. Between 2012 and 2020 China nearly tripled its amount of federal monitoring stations, going from 661 to 1, 800. Added to the fact that the country already has thousands of other monitoring stations, it’s challenge now isn’t about data availability, but much more about data implementation.

In order to exploit such a vast reservoir of data, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in conjunction with the Beijing Huanding Environmental Big Data Institute has launched a pilot project in the city of Cangzhou. Home to over 7 million people and located in the polluted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the city’s municipal government has joined forces with the aforementioned institutions to ensure that the pilot does what it’s supposed to do: combining several sources of air quality data to help the city’s regulators in enforcing air quality practices.

Before the project launched in 2020, city enforcement officers would literally go around performing random spot checks at construction sites as well as commercial and industry sites to make sure that compliance was met. This method proved inefficient as a mere 6 to 7% of site visits lead to the uncovering of infringements.

A microcosm for China and the world at large

To say that the team is making use of innovative means in order to process its vast array of data would be an understatement. At present, it has built a new data platform capable of crunching real-time data in order to map air quality over the entirety of the city. To achieve such ends, the team has outfitted 50 taxies with mobile instruments which feeds data to the fixed government monitoring stations. The combination of fixed data points and moving data points means that an average of 5, 000 km gets covered daily with each instrument doing a read every 3 seconds. The result is a real-time accurate view of the city’s air quality. In consolidating all this data, the platform detects hotspots by sheer automation, and by way of a simple app, alerts enforcement officers.

Beijing Traffic

Things have improved tenfold, literally. Within a span of less than three months after the launch of the new platform, 70% of hotspots visited by enforcement officers were shown to be sources of emission. More than 400 hotspots are reported to inspectors on a monthly basis, with matters only set to improve as the system continues to get tested.

What this clearly proves is that hyper-local air quality monitoring is a cost-effective way to tackle air quality enforcement. The system can be scaled and can thus aid not just the rest of China, but the rest of the world when it comes to the enforcement of air quality regulations and practices.

China’s solution is a worthwhile investment

In addition, China’s one-shoe-fits all solution for air quality monitoring clearly has global applications and is a worth-while investment. The only problem is that half of the world’s governments have thus far failed to make such investments. As it stands, 90% of the global population breathes unsafe air, the result thereof which is 4.2 million premature deaths annually. To combat such a global travesty, private companies have taken matters into their own hands. One such example is Cambridge Mask Co. The company is one of a handful that understands that breathing clean air isn’t tomorrow’s problem but in fact today’s; and it’s remedying the situation through the Cambridge Mask PRO, an ergonomically designed face mask with a triple filtration system that utilises patented UK military carbon filter technology. Like China, Cambridge Mask is concerned with athlete-ready air quality, so much so, that the company has been supplying the UK’s basketball team with their very own customised PRO masks. This type of air protection is here to stay, as it’s still going to be years before governments around the world adopt technology that China has over the last few years perfected and continues to refine and implement.

pollution mask

The road ahead...

The measures that Beijing and the cities in and around it took for the 2008 Olympics might have been short-lived, but those measures laid the groundwork for China’s subsequent actions which have provided a globally applicable framework on how to disrupt polluting activities and improve air quality. The gratification of cleaning the air is invaluable. Local health improves and the climate crises gets properly addressed. Come February 4th, 2022, Beijing will once again be ready to show its best side to the world.