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Beijing breathes

Beijing breathes

The Beijing Winter Olympics are taking place in an area completely unsuited to winter sports. But at least the air will be clearer than it was in 2008

The Winter Olympics start on Friday. Beijing says they will be the “greenest and cleanest” games ever, but many of the events are being staged on 100 per cent artificial snow in arid mountains almost completely unsuited to winter sports.

In the 14 years since Beijing hosted the summer Olympics, China has become the biggest single contributor to climate change. Its leadership knows the importance of putting on a good environmental show, and in some respects these games will be just that; a Potemkin village of sustainability (more below).

But by one metric – air pollution – Beijing is leading by example.

The city’s battle for clean air is a case study in international and domestic pressures combining to drive policy. Since 2008, coal consumption has declined year on year in Beijing, even though it has increased for the country as a whole. As a result the city’s level of harmful PM2.5 particulate pollution has fallen by two thirds since 2008, making 2021 the first year Beijing air quality achieved the national standard.

China’s war on smog

Beijing’s air can still choke, but it has been much worse. As China emerged from the 2008 crash into a period of heavy industrialisation, pollution levels increased until public outrage boiled over after several smog episodes in 2012. Data on true PM2.5 levels was released by the US Embassy and spread via Chinese social media. 

The combination of bad air and good data triggered what Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia calls a “Silent Spring moment”: “The Chinese government realised in a very short period of time that they really needed to do something.”

They built a nationwide system for monitoring air pollution, tied the performance rankings of local cadres to air quality, and set a five-year target for Beijing to cut its coal consumption by half. It worked: between 2013 and 2021 the city’s average levels of larger particulates, PM2.5 and PM10, fell by 63 per cent and 49 per cent respectively.

“When we did analysis back in 2012 and 2013, we were projecting Beijing to get to the level that we are now in around 2028,” Li says. “It’s quite amazing progress.”

Skaters and curling competitors will notice the difference. They’ll compete in Yanqing, near Beijing. Not so the skiers and snowboarders, 200 km away in Zhangjiakou, where the games are an environmental own goal for at least three reasons: 

  • Particulates. In Zhangjiakou last Sunday particulate levels were three times higher than recommended as a safe daily average by the WHO. “Living and breathing this air 24 hours a day… is not good for the athletes’ (or anyone’s) overall health,” says Professor Michael Koehle, team physician for Athletics Canada at the Tokyo summer games. “Events most affected would be the outdoor endurance events like cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined.”
  • Artificial snow. Zhangjiakou is on the edge of the inner Mongolian desert. Average annual precipitation is 8 mm – equivalent at most to 13 centimetres of natural snow. The Beijing hosts can rely on none at all and have deployed 430 snow cannons drawing enough water to fill 800 Olympic swimming pools. It will be piped from reservoirs that supply nearby farmland and some of Beijing’s drinking water, before being chemically treated and sprayed over the slopes. If this were a one-off, local ecosystems might recover, but it isn’t. Xi Jinping sees these games as a coming-out party for a $1 trillion Chinese ski industry with hundreds of brand new resorts all reliant on artificial snow. The outlook for the water table, never mind the reservoirs, is bleak.  A 2020 study in Nature found that groundwater depletion in Beijing was already some of the most severe in the world.
  • Biodiversity. Ski runs now transect the Songshan Nature Reserve, home to protected species including golden eagles, orchids and golden leopards. Construction required transplanting 20,000 trees, and while the Beijing Olympics Committee reports 90 per cent have so far survived the move, the removal of topsoil, coupled with runoff from artificial snow, presents a new threat to the park.

The forecast

February is a smoggy time in northern China and officials have already warned that conditions are likely to be “extremely unfavourable”. As is customary before showcase events, authorities will resort to temporary factory closures and “cloud seeding” – trying to stimulate precipitation by firing silver iodide-filled rockets into the sky.

A more effective, long-term air quality solution would be to continue to cut reliance on coal – which accounted for 64 per cent of China’s power generation in 2021. “There’s limited space to improve things further with better filters and scrubbers on industrial plants,” says Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “Progress is increasingly going to depend on scaling down coal infrastructure and shifting to renewables.” 

The message has only partly been received. China built more offshore wind capacity in 2021 alone than the rest of the world has in the last 5 years. But anxieties over energy security and provincial politics mean the Chinese leadership is still stubbornly pro-coal: last week, Xi toured the coal heartland of Shanxi and called for more “green coal” technologies. 

As for greening the games themselves, Beijing’s vast efforts underscore how ludicrous it is to host the Olympics in unsuitable climates. Pyeongchang 2018 used 90 per cent artificial snow. Sochi 2014 used 80 per cent (and planeloads of pink Himalayan salt). A recent report found that of the 20 Winter Olympic venues used since 1924, only 10 will have the natural snowfall levels needed to host an event by 2050. An acceptance of this reality is growing among athletes. The IOC needs to accept it too. If the winter games are to have a future they will have to move further north, further south, or further up.


Oil majors are having a hard time suppressing the instinct to hunt for more oil and gas reserves. Nearly 800 new exploration or appraisal wells were drilled worldwide in 2021, and experts expect that number to increase in 2022 despite the advice of the International Energy Agency, which says no more exploration is needed to meet future demand. Exploration is driven by the calculation that demand is likely to stay high for decades and that if the majors don’t find the reserves and extract them using techniques that are strict on leakage, dirtier private and state-owned oil companies will. Shell drilled its first well in Namibia last month. Eni recently drilled its first Kenyan offshore well in almost eight years. Other supermajors have been more reluctant to open new frontiers, but oil prices are rebounding. For now, as the FT reports, it’s happy hunting.

science and technology

Battery breakthrough
Researchers in Japan say they have created a battery with an energy density of 500 Watt-hours/kg – widely viewed as the feasibility benchmark for long-distance electric air travel. In principle the lithium air battery, which uses oxygen from ambient air, is almost twice as energy dense as the lithium ion batteries found in most electric cars. The version produced by Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science can also – reportedly – be charged and discharged at room temperature, allowing for practical use in everything from drones to household appliances. Trials have so far been limited to short-distance private aircraft, and lithium air batteries have yet to prove themselves in terms of durability. But this is another sign that zero-emission aviation could actually happen. Last week, Rolls Royce’s electric plane achieved a record speed of 380mph. With the holy grail of high-density batteries, electric planes could go the distance too.


Surprise supplies
As the risk of a conflict in Ukraine grows, western leaders are cosying up to any natural gas producer who isn’t Russia. The Emir of Qatar has been invited to the White House this week to discuss the possibility of sending more tankers to Europe, while the Independent reports an increase in liquified natural gas shipments from QatarEnergy arriving at UK ports. This may not be a long-term arrangement, because the Qataris haven’t all that much to spare: ​​two-thirds of its exports are tied up in long term deals with Asian countries. Even if Qatar sent all of its uncontracted supplies to Europe, they could replace only a fraction of Russian exports. Last year it was reported that Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, had tapped Doha as the UK’s “informal supplier of last resort”. Time to make that formal?


Cash for coral
In the last three months of 2021, ocean temperatures over the Great Barrier Reef reached a level “unprecedented in the satellite record”, according to the NOAA. As a result, scientists say the reef’s coral is on the verge of yet another mass bleaching event; four have already taken place since the start of the millennium. Last Friday the Australian government pledged $700 million towards protecting the reef by reducing runoff from industry and agriculture, but called the package a “cynical token action” that does nothing to address the underlying problem of global temperature rise. Indeed, runoff is hardly the biggest issue. A much bigger one is that Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions levels in the world at 16.9 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, compared with 5.6 for the UK and 2 for India.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Edited by Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images

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