Air pollution

The following is an excerpt from our latest e-magazine issue: "A long and winding road to clean air."

As an activist who has been working on the air pollution issue from the Greenpeace Beijing office for over two years, I’ve directly experienced all the crazy headline-grabbing polluted days and watched a fierce fight unfold between policies of prioritizing GPD growth and a public cry for clear air.

The first time I came to Beijing was in 2008, right after Chinese New Year. Standing on the second ring road of the capital, my initial impression of Beijing was that of a city that is cold and grey. I, like many others in Beijing, never paid much attention to air quality back then, even though the sky was a weird grayish hue during the entirety of that stay.

Months later, with the Beijing Olympics approaching, the city skies suddenly took on a blue color. People passing by would stop, look up and say to one another: "What a lovely day today." It was a simple joy we could all experience during the Games. Only later we learned the central government had artificially created those blue skies for the purposes of the Olympics.

In 2008, the Greenpeace Beijing office published an assessment of the environmental performance of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games called China after the Olympics: Lessons from Beijing. The report said: "Short-term solutions such as temporary industry closures, halting construction and vehicle restrictions might help Beijing meet WHO standards during the period of the Games, but they are not long-term solutions. Only through tackling fundamental causes of air pollution by reforming energy structure, improving public transportation and enforcing strict emission standards for industries will Beijing see the benefits of the Games long after."

As predicted the effects manually created by short-term regulations quickly faded. Beijing’s air worsened soon after the Olympics, and yet, something else had changed more permanently. The dramatic difference felt by the people living in Beijing during those magical two weeks left a niggling thought in their minds.

The air pollution debate in China is a story of how big things can have small beginnings, of hope beyond hope. But at the heart of this is a tale of genuine people power, starting with the Chinese people waking up to the tragedy that is the gray air around them and then rightfully demanding clean air.

Contine reading the full feature here.

Image: On the south bank of the Yanglin River, the power plant’s smoke stacks send down drifts of white ash to nearby communities. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace