Breathe Deep: Air Quality Reform in China


Information from air quality monitors, optical sensors, and satellites is transforming pollution policy in China



Federal and municipal governments are investing over four hundred billion dollars for air pollution reduction efforts between 2013-17


air quality reform in China

Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read, “Above Beijing,” Beijing, China. Accessed from Creative Commons license available at No changes were made.

In 2010-11, media and watchdog organizations in Beijing noticed discrepancies between data from independent air quality monitoring systems and official government information. In response to public protest, the federal government launched a $275 billion plan in 2013 to improve air quality throughout the country.1 2 3  The Beijing municipal government pledged an additional $160 billion. The city’s technical partner on this “Green Horizon” initiative, IBM, will use real-time data from optical sensors, air quality monitors, and satellites to predict where pollution will be generated and how it is likely to spread througout the city. 4

Public Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Over two million people die every year in China from polluted air, and hundreds of millions more suffer much shortened lives.5 As cities like Beijing grow, vehicle exhaust, factory emissions, and the burning of firewood and trash create dangerous concentrations of particulate matter in the air (see figure). Certain realities that would have been unthinkable a generation ago – pedestrians and motorists in respirator masks, children with year-round bronchial coughs – are now considered normal, inescapable facts of modern life.

Data for Citizen Pressure

The pressure brought to bear by air quality data has led to meaningful investment and the setting of ambitious targets for pollution reduction. Beijing’s objective is to lower fine particulate matter levels – the most dangerous form of air pollution – by 25 percent over a four-year period. The Green Horizon system has already performed impressively in enabling the government to take preventative action against pollution: data not only identified problems and generated political will, but is helping to solve them.6 7  Stronger emissions regulations and higher fines for polluters are already in place, with a target of reducing carbon emissions to three-fifths of present levels by 2020.8 9

The Long Road Ahead

Even in the most optimistic scenario, making China’s air safe will take decades.10 Staying the course with environmental reforms, especially given the competing imperative of economic growth, will be difficult. The momentum for change is unmistakable, however, as is clear by the proliferation of websites, smartphone applications, and media sources that provide pollution forecasts.

Particulate Matter Levels in Beijing

Graphic: Created using data from reference 11.

Levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in Beijing’s air between May 2011 and February 2015, recorded hourly. Note the number of observations in the unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous ranges. Source: US Department of State

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1. Andrews, Steven Q. 2011. “Beijing’s Hazardous Blue Sky.” China Dialogue, May 12, 2011. (accessed March 15, 2015).

2. Andrews, Steven Q. 2008. “Inconsistencies in Air Quality Metrics: Blue Sky Days and PM10 Concentrations in Beijing.” Environmental Research Letters 3(3). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/3/3/034009.

3. Wong, Edward. 2011. “Outrage Grows Over Air Pollution and China’s Response.” The New York Times, December 2, 2011.

4. Meza, Edgar. 2014. “IBM Research Launches Green Horizon in China.” PV Magazine, July 7, 2014.
(accessed March 15, 2015)

5. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). 2013. China Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Seattle, United States: IHME, 2013.

6. IBM Research. 2014. “IBM Research Launches Project “Green Horizon” to Help China Deliver on Ambitious Energy and Environmental Goals.” IBM, July 7, 2014. (accessed March 15, 2015)

7. Batty, Jonathan. 2015. IBM Global Labs. Interview by Bapu Vaitla. Phone interview. March 17, 2015.

8. “Tighter Air Quality Monitoring in Beijing.” 2011. Xinhua News Agency. China Daily, November 7, 2011. (accessed March 15, 2015).

9. Spegele, Brian. 2014. “China Moves to Bolster Air Pollution Control Law.” The Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2014. (accessed March 15, 2015).

10. Xin, Zheng. 2014. “Beijing Expects Healthy Air by 2030.” China Daily, July 2, 2014. (accessed March 15, 2014).

11. United States Department of State. 2015. “Beijing Historical Data.” Mission China: Beijing. (accessed April 15, 2015).