EXPLAINER - How China achieved blue skies just in time for the Olympics

BEIJING (AP), -- This month's blue skies for the Olympic athletes are quite a contrast to a decade ago, when the city's air pollution was so severe that it was called an "Airpocalypse" which was blamed for scaring away tourists.

EXPLAINER - How China achieved blue skies just in time for the Olympics

BEIJING (AP), -- This month's blue skies for the Olympic athletes are quite a contrast to a decade ago, when the city's air pollution was so severe that it was called an "Airpocalypse" which was blamed for scaring away tourists.

Beijing's air quality is still a ways off from previous years, when the smog made it hard to see nearby buildings. People wore masks to prevent pollution, not COVID-19. In 2016, the city's notoriously polluted air was also highlighted when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, posted a picture of himself running in the Tiananmen Square haze with a smile. On social media, some speculated that he was trying ingratiate his self with Chinese authorities.

Yet, athletes can see the mountains surrounding Beijing at the Beijing Games this month.

Beijing

EXPLAINER - How China achieved blue skies just in time for the Olympics

By CANDICE CHOI

Today

FILE - A group of cyclists passes a traditional Chinese gateway on Oct 26, 2007, and again on February 5, 2022. Although Beijing's air quality is still a long way from perfect, it is significantly better than in previous years. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

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FILE - A group of cyclists passes a traditional Chinese gateway on Oct 26, 2007, and again on February 5, 2022. Although Beijing's air quality is still a long way from perfect, it is significantly better than in previous years. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

BEIJING (AP), -- This month's blue skies for the Olympic athletes are quite a contrast to a decade ago, when the city's air pollution was so severe that it was called an "Airpocalypse" which was blamed for scaring away tourists.

Beijing's air quality is still a ways off from previous years, when the smog made it hard to see nearby buildings. People wore masks to prevent pollution, not COVID-19. In 2016, the city's notoriously polluted air was also highlighted when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, posted a picture of himself running in the Tiananmen Square haze with a smile. On social media, some speculated that he was trying ingratiate his self with Chinese authorities.

The Beijing Games are taking place this month, and the air is clear enough to allow athletes to see the mountains around the city.

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Here's a look at the reasons behind the transformation.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

China's ambitious plan to improve air quality was launched after pollution reached record levels in 2013. This became a major source of public discontent and international attention. According to a report by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, China said that it would "fight pollution with an iron fist". This was also the time that China bid for this month's Winter Games.

The report notes that the resulting efforts were very similar to those China took to provide clear skies for Beijing's 2008 Summer Games. However, they were on a much larger scale. To reduce vehicle emissions, stricter emission standards were applied to coal-fired power plants. Local officials were set environmental targets and the coal-fired boilers in their homes were replaced by gas or electric heaters.

Also, the government has improved its reporting of data on air quality.

Jia Pei (30 years old Beijing resident) said that the better air quality makes him feel happier.

He said, "In the past, when there was smog I would feel like I was inhaling dust into mine mouth."

Is BEIJING'S Air Clean Now?

Despite all the improvements, Beijing's average annual air pollution was still higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization guidelines.

The city is still vulnerable to bad air days because of the presence of coal-burning industries around it, according to Lauri Myllyvirta, Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Helsinki, Finland.

The factors that determine when these happen depend on things like traffic and how much wind blows away smog.

Officials in China still praise the country's accomplishments. They claim that there were 288 days of good quality air in Beijing last year, as opposed to the 176 days in 2013.

WHAT IMPACTS HEALTH?

Air pollution can cause severe health problems, including irritated eyes and trouble breathing.

Myllyvirta, a Beijing resident who lived until 2019, said that you could hear people coughing because of it.

The effects are more severe for older adults, children and those with asthma. Air pollution's fine particles can penetrate the lungs, causing health problems such as irregular heartbeats or decreased lung function.

People who are poorer might be more vulnerable to air purifiers and working outside, Guojun He, a researcher at University of Hong Kong, stated.

WHAT'S NEXT?

China has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. Even though China still heavily relies on coal for electricity generation, He stated that the country has made significant progress in reducing emissions and is developing clean energy sources such as wind and solar.

He stated, "When it is possible, I believe in general that the transition will be happening, and it's actually occurring right now."

He noted that the government can take temporary measures, such as closing down factories temporarily, when necessary. This can make it easier to plan for major political or social events like the Olympics.

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