How Beijing Cleaned Up its Stifling Air Pollution Problem

When I first when to China in June 2007, about one year before the Olympics, I knew the air would be bad. But nothing prepared me for what it was really like.

Upon landing in Beijing’s airport, I noticed the smog. The sky was invisible, and it was difficult to see even nearby buildings. After exiting the plane, the airport exhibited a dusty mist — kind of like standing near the smoking section. Upon exiting the airport, my friend greeted me with a big smile, but I was horrified: The dust and dirt seemed to be penetrating my every orifice. My nose, eyes, and throat instantly became irritated. The smell of car exhaust was overwhelming. I didn’t want to breathe…

Beijing 12amPhoto: Alberto..

Despite that awful experience, I came back. It’s 2010, three years since I was in Beijing and two years since the Olympics.

I am pleasantly surprised (to say the least). The air was the one thing I dreaded (the food, people and prices are great) and now it is the least of my worries. While the air is still a bit dusty at times, the overwhelming agony of sucking in toxins is gone. I feel like I’m walking through any of the developed world’s capitals, be it New York or Madrid.

Beijing National StadiumPhoto: Bin.D

What happened? The government took cleaning up for the Olympics seriously (spending $17 billion), and some of the results have been permanent, such as

• moving polluting factories away from the city
• converting coal boilers to natural gas
• great improvements in public transportation, such as
more bus lines, a new subway line, and extended hours of operation

Here’s a model that other cities can follow, and I can learn Chinese without taking years off my life!