Beijing Traffic Restriction Not a Silver Bullet for Air Pollution

Day 3 of Beijing's car ban
A glimmer of blue sky on Day 3 of Beijing's car ban.
Photo by Chris Drumgoole via Flickr

A recent traffic restriction that limited driving in China’s capital city during the four-day “Good Luck Beijing” Olympic test games initially resulted in a measurable improvement in the city’s haze, according to Beijing officials. But over the full period of the restriction, air pollution levels in fact showed a slight increase, The Washington Post reported. Zhao Yue, vice director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, noted on the agency’s Web site that humid, windless conditions had trapped particulate matter in the city, preventing greater improvement.

Under the restriction, effective August 17 to 20, car owners with license plates ending in an even number were permitted to drive only on even-numbered dates, and vice versa. The partial ban resulted in the removal of hundreds of thousands of cars from Beijing’s streets each day. Violators of the ruling were subjected to a fine equivalent to US$15 and required to return home with their vehicles.

On the first day of the restriction, Beijing’s air quality improved from the previous day’s “Level 3” rating (slightly polluted) to a “Level 2” rating (fairly good), People’s Daily reported. But the index of particulate matter was ultimately higher on Day 4 than on Day 1. Even so, the Day 4 index, at 95–100, was better than the index of 116 measured the day before the partial ban began. On the final day of the restriction, Beijing’s skies remained hazy.

Car ownership in China is growing by 26 percent a year, and some forecasts say automobile sales could reach 10 million a year by 2010. Together with coal burning for industrial and household uses, auto emissions are considered one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the country’s rapidly expanding cities. Beijing alone has been adding cars at the rate of about 1,000 new vehicles a day, according to the Wall Street Journal. In a model simulation, city officials had projected that taking some 130 million vehicles off the road each day would lead to a 40 percent reduction in the capital’s auto emissions.

Ever since Beijing promised to host the ‘greenest’ Olympics ever in 2008, the local government has plowed a fortune into major measures to tackle the capital’s long-standing air pollution problem. These include switching Beijing’s primary energy usage from coal to natural gas, relocating highly polluting industries outside of city limits, adopting stricter auto emissions standards, using cleaner fuels for public buses, and replacing coal boilers with electric or gas boilers.

The city has also been planting trees on a large scale. According to China’s State Forestry Administration, more than half of Beijing’s urban areas are now covered with trees, and nearly 70 percent of its mountain areas are forested. In addition, three large-scale tree belts have been developed around the city to protect it from destructive sandstorms. The traffic restriction is the latest effort to correct the city’s worsening air quality.

In 2006, for the first time in eight years, Beijing experienced a record 241 “blue sky” days, or days with good air quality (Levels 1 or 2). However, the city still encountered an increasing number of days with poor air quality, triggered mainly by severe sandstorms and extreme meteorological conditions. “We must realize that even we have been achieving the goal of improving air quality during the past eight years, the target for 65 percent ‘blue sky’ days a year is comparatively low,” said Du Shaozhong, vice president of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. Du noted that Beijing’s air quality still lags behind the national standard as well as the standard set for the upcoming Olympic Games, and it does not yet meet residents’ expectations for a “livable” city.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.