Mask off: How Beijing is Managing its Smog Problem

Earlier this month, California made national headlines when the worst wildfire in the state’s history covered parts of it in smoke, creating yet another worry for citizens already vexed by the high cost of living and rising homelessness. Some news stations, hoping to illustrate the seriousness of the matter, stressed that the air quality in California was “worse than Beijing’s,” an announcement that prompted many locals to don the air masks that one often sees in images of the Chinese capital. In media, locally, and abroad, Beijing has become synonymous with bad air. The internet is peppered with images of skyscrapers draped in brown or grey fog. But recent efforts by the government have made some headway in the battle with Beijing’s notorious smog and could give us insight into how to battle this problem at home.

 A smoggy day in Beijing. By 螺钉 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24944427

A smoggy day in Beijing. By 螺钉 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24944427

Those who have been to Beijing know that air quality is but one of many dangers; crossing an intersection can be like an action movie at times and drinking water out of the tap is generally a bad idea. Smog, however, is the issue most often associated with Beijing in the media. Fortunately, Beijing is aware of its reputation and has taken steps over the last few years to improve its air quality. The city has pledged to shut down 1000 manufacturing factories by 2020 to help reduce smog. It is also experimenting with new technology. Early last year Beijing employed the use a solar-powered air vacuum to help clean up the city’s air. Developed by Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, the Smog Free Tower sucks up 30,000 cubic meters of polluted air per hour. The air is then cleaned at a nano level and released back into the city. In a particularly bold move, Beijing's government is investigating the possibility of switching from coal to natural gas as the primary source of heating for millions of households. This shift will be implemented gradually, as concern for the well-being of Beijingers during the winter months supersedes the need for cleaner air.

 Dan Roosegaardes's Smog Free Tower. By Bic - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47801218

Dan Roosegaardes's Smog Free Tower. By Bic - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47801218

People can change, and ideally, their reputations will change as well. Beijing’s efforts to clean its air shows an environmental consciousness that contradicts its reputation as a dirty industrialized city. As smog becomes a more recurrent issue in cities and courtiers around the world, communities that once judged China for its smog may get to learn a thing or two about how to fight it.





JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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