Solving Cities

Beijing's blueprint for beating climate change

Beijing's blueprint for beating climate change

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Beijing made big emissions reductions during the 2008 Olympics.

In 2008, Beijing took major steps to ensure that smog and pollution didn't taint the Olympics. World-class runners choking their way across the finish line wouldn't have been good PR.

Millions of cars were taken off the road, construction was halted, and coal use was decreased in favor of natural gas. The city implemented pollution-reducing measures that were worthy of a gold medal.

Now, new research shows just how big of an impact those measures had on CO and CO2 emissions during the Olympics. Take a look at this heat map showing emissions levels before the games and during the games.

Clearly, the measures Beijing took had a significant impact on its emissions levels. (You can see more graphics from the study here.) And as the researchers pointed out, the result of the study "suggests that urban traffic controls on the Beijing Olympics scale could play a significant role in meeting target reductions for global CO2 emissions."

Writing for the New York Times, Felicity Barringer put it this way:

Even with significant uncertainties factored in, the amount is striking. An effort by one city (the world’s 19th most populous metropolitan area, with 12.5 million people) led to emissions reductions that, if made permanent and multiplied by 360, would be enough to avoid the concentrations of greenhouse gases that could lead to dangerous levels of warming.

Imagine what could happen if bigger metropolitan areas like Tokyo (32.4 million people) Seoul (20.5 million) Mexico City (20.4 million) New York (19.7 million), Mumbai (19.2 million) and Jakarta (18.9 million) did likewise?

It was already clear on an anecdotal (and now empirical) level that the changes made by the Chinese government made a difference in the air quality in the city. So what could be the most fascinating part of this study is exactly how the researchers came up with results. Barringer explains:

The groundbreaking element was the computer programs they used to analyze data from a satellite-based radiometer that has been measuring carbon monoxide on the earth’s surface for a dozen years.

The final measurements had a wide margin of error: the total carbon dioxide reduction in Beijing during the Olympics was anywhere from 24,000 metric tons to 96,000 metric tons. Yet however rough, the data was more precise than earlier measurements taken through inventories of ground-based emissions.

Meaning the technology measuring emissions is getting more sophisticated and more accurate.

Today, Beijing is, unfortunately, "back to square one" when it comes to their air quality. But for a short time we were able to see, first hand, the steps needed to fight climate change. And now we are able to measure emissions changes in a more detailed and accurate way. So when the seas rise, the droughts worsen, the summers get hotter, and the winters more snowy, we won't be excused for not knowing what to do. We've seen change right before our eyes.

Photo: Flickr/Jean

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure