Traffic and Weather, Beijing-style

Over the weekend, and into Monday, Beijing pulled roughly one million cars per day from its roads in a test of pollution (and traffic) control strategies in advance of the Olympics. According to the Beijing Environment Protection Monitoring Center, Beijing’s air quality received scores of 91, 93, 95, and 95 over the last four days on something called the “index of inhalable particular matter.” Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing that the referenced index is the same as the US EPA’s Air Quality Guide for Particle Pollution. If so, the scores claimed by Beijing are at the upper end of the “moderate” air quality rating (yellow). According to the EPA, under such circumstances: “Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion.” So, assuming that the Beijing numbers were reported truthfully, the Beijing authorities can reasonably claim that air quality during the test was “fairly good.”

[The Environment Protection Monitoring Center reported that Beijing’s air quality rated 116 on Thursday, the day before the test. By the US Air Quality Index (and again, I don’t know if Beijing is using it or something else), that score is “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” and under such circumstances: “People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.”]

A couple of quick observations on these tests.

First, it’s understandable that Beijing ran its tests over the weekend. The city has become highly dependent upon motorized transportation, and even a weekend disruption must have been significant (I was not there; I do not know). However, as in any city, motorized traffic drops off on the weekend, and I think it’s fair to assume that Beijing received somewhat favorable results on its tests because of this. If the city is really serious about testing its traffic/pollution control measures, it’s going to have to test them during the workweek.

Second, motorized vehicles have a small influence upon Beijing’s air quality – a point made in the Xinhua story:

About one fifth of the total IPM in Beijing’s air comes from vehicle emissions, according to Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.

[IPM is inhahalable particulate matter]

I don’t have the statistics on the sources for the other four-fifths (and I’d be much appreciative if someone could refer me to them), but I think it’s safe to assume that those sources will be much more difficult to control than automobiles. As I noted on this blog last week, a US Olympic Committee official claims to have been told by unidentified Chinese authorities that “the factories” will be close for three months prior to the games. No information was given on which factories, or where, but presumably the shut-down will start with facilities upwind of Beijing.

But, as I noted in the same post, even that step is likely insufficient due to the fact that upwards of 70% of China’s electricity needs are met by coal-burning power plants, most of which burn sulfur-rich coal, and few of which have modern pollution controls. Shutting down factories is hard; shutting down power plants is impossible.

Finally, I want to point out that the question of whether or not Beijing can improve its air quality in time for the Olympics is important to many more people than the relatively small population of athletes set to arrive in 2008. There will be many more stories written over the coming months about Beijing’s pollution; hopefully, more than a few will consider the impact that the pollution has on the people who will breathe it before and after after the closing ceremonies.