BEIJING — Winters in Beijing have long been choked by thick, dusty, toxic smog. But this winter, the sky has taken on a once seemingly unthinkable hue: blue.
Now, an analysis of government data by Greenpeace has confirmed what many people could see but that nonetheless seemed too good to be true.
Pollution in Beijing and in 27 other cities in northeastern China has fallen precipitously, dropping 33 percent on average compared with the last three months of 2016.
In Beijing, pollution fell 53 percent. Greenpeace estimated that lower pollution levels resulted in 160,000 fewer premature deaths across China in 2017.
The drop indicated that the government’s antipollution campaign — first announced in 2013 but accelerated last year for regions around the capital — has begun to show results.
Even so, pollution levels fell less precipitously or rose elsewhere, suggesting that a concerted effort last fall to shift heating to natural gas from coal may have simply shifted the harmful effects to regions far from the capital.
In the northern province of Heilongjiang, on the border with Russia, pollution levels rose 10 percent. In a statement with its analysis, Greenpeace argued that the results demonstrated the need for more government action, noting that nationwide the drop in pollutants was only 4 percent.
“China’s national air pollution action plan has brought massive reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks, but policies favoring coal and heavy industry are holding back progress,” Huang Wei, one of the organization’s campaigners, said in the statement.
But in Beijing, where pollution levels are tracked as closely as property prices are in Hong Kong, London or New York, the respite from eye-watering, throat-scratching smog has nonetheless been welcomed. Only a year ago the pollution was so bad on some days that schools were closed and flights were canceled.
Air quality is measured by the concentration of PM2.5, or particulate matter of a size deemed especially harmful; such pollutants contribute to a variety of health conditions. Anything under 50 is considered good.
For a couple of days at the end of December, levels nearly reached 300, which is considered hazardous, but those were, for this winter so far at least, the exceptions. (On Thursday evening, as this article was being written, the level was 29, according to the China Environmental Monitoring Station index.)
But beyond the health risks, pollution also poses a political risk for the government of President Xi Jinping as he moves to promote the country’s rise on the world stage.
The government does not seem to be resting on its laurels in the fight against pollution. The Ministry of Environmental Protection warned in a statement on Wednesday that clearer skies were caused in part by favorable weather conditions, and that conditions could worsen in late January and early February.
“Local governments need to strengthen pollution controls to further cut emissions and make sure they reach their goals on air quality improvement,” the ministry was quoted as saying in China Daily.
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