I have arrived in Beijing and begun working at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). My late arrival makes me more of a fall intern than a summer intern, but CAUPD was kind enough to let me begin later since I will not be returning to Portland afterwards. I just completed my MURP degree with a focus on environmental planning, and I will be working in CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research while I am here.
China clearly has its share of environmental concerns at the moment, which is why I am so interested in working here. I arrived with a respirator mask in my carry-on, ready for the airpocalypse I’ve heard so much about (the embedded link equates breathing Beijing air to smoking 40 cigarettes a day). Air quality is primarily measured in PM2.5, which represents the tiny particulate matter that can easily lodge in the bloodstream when inhaled. A safe range is less than 50, and Beijing has averaged around 200 lately and reached as high as 900 in the past (roughly, the index stops at 500). For comparison, Portland air quality is typically less than 30.
So you will understand my shock to be greeted by beautiful blue skies and not a smog cloud in sight. The PM2.5 has been hovering in the 30 – 60 range, which is totally breathable air by anyone’s standards. In a bizarre twist of fate the air quality in Portland was far worse than Beijing when I arrived because of the wildfires burning in Oregon. I spent the first few days in the company of fellow interns Hannah and Lea, who also couldn’t believe the weather. We could see the colors of the sunset, the reflection of the sky on the water, even our shadows. It probably would have taken me a while to notice that one – Hannah pointed out that she rarely sees her shadow since the sun is obscured by a thick haze.
So what gives? It turns out arriving on August 22 was fortuitous timing. From August 20 to September 5 the government is closing factories and limiting auto access within the city. Similar to car restrictions in European cities, only odd numbered license plates are allowed on one day, and even numbered plates on the next. According to colleagues I haven’t seen real Beijing traffic yet. The reason for the pollution crackdown is because there is going to be a huge celebration on September 3 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (a/k/a WWII). Normally the day goes unobserved, but it will be a national holiday this year with a huge military parade, pomp and ceremony, foreign dignitaries, the works. It would be a shame if the photos of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration were mired in smog. Beijingers are (perhaps somewhat subversively) calling the color of the sky “parade blue.”
When I comment on the fantastic weather everyone quickly points out that it will not last, so I shouldn’t get used to it. It is as if the government switched off the smog machine, but they’ll flip it back on when the celebrations are over. This really leads one to question why you would permit hazardous air when you have the power to prevent it. It actually makes me more hopeful than ever that good policy is going to have a huge impact on China. I’ve heard it referred to as the “three T problem” – $1 trillion each to clean up the water, the land, and the air. It is shorthand for the scale of the problem. But massive, widespread environmental problems can be tackled – case in point, the air I’m breathing right now. The smog machine may get turned back on next week, but alternatives are on the rise and if anyone can implement them quickly and completely it is China. Take for example the first project I’ll be working on at CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research:
Sure, it is going to take time to transition away from fossil fuels, but in the near future the smog machine won’t be needed to grow the economy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the transition to a clean economy happens incredibly fast given China’s past rate of urbanization and development. I’m not being an idealist – the National Development and Reform Commission (a big deal) is interested in distributed energy because the existing centralized, coal-powered energy model is not rational. You don’t need a green agenda to realize the inevitable.
Stay tuned for blue skies all the time.