Air quality in Beijing three times worse than in London - what next for China's dependence on coal?

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on the challenges China face in going greener while striving for continued economic growth

The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Beijing on Tuesday was 160, above the 150 threshold I’ve set for it to be safe for me to exercise outdoors, but not that bad, for the start of winter.

By comparison the current AQI in Glasgow, where the COP26 is being held is 17 - in London it’s between 33 and 55, depending on where you are.

When I look at those comparisons it’s scary to think what impact living in China is having on my health. I won’t give you any prizes for guessing what’s causing the pollution – coal.

The good news is that in the almost six years I’ve been here, the air has been gradually improving.

In fact since 2013, Beijing has halved its pollution levels. They’ve gone from around 89.5mg of PM 2.5 (small particles in the air) to 34mg this year.

It might not surprise you to know that in China, even the heating is centrally controlled. It’s only when temperatures start to drop below around 10C that the local government will turn the radiators on in our homes.

That’s what happened this week and around this same time every year, the air gets bad.

On Tuesday, I met with the man who started the first database for Chinese people to check the air quality and factory emissions in their area.

Ma Jun runs the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs, an NGO in Beijing. He was shortlisted for Prince William's Earthshot Prize and invited by His Royal Highness to attend the COP26 in Glasgow - an invitation he had to decline due to the strict Covid-19 pandemic restrictions in place in China.

He told me the pandemic and geo-political tensions made any major breakthroughs at the Glasgow summit unlikely. Unlike before the Paris summit in 2015, there haven’t been so many bilateral or multi-lateral meetings ahead of COP26.

Ma Jun, who runs the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs in Beijing, was invited to attend the COP26 in Glasgow. Credit: ITV News

Mr Ma doesn't agree that China's climate change targets lack ambition, and he predicts that the country will hit peak emissions in 2027, three years ahead of target. The country likes to over-deliver, not over-promise, he told me.

But as we stood on the balcony of his office looking out on the hazy skies of Beijing, he described the challenge ahead for the nation.

It is true that Beijing has gone coal-free but the electricity being bought in by the capital is still 90%, or more, coming from coal power.

Every year, China’s energy needs are still rising and as well as the demands of 1.4 billion people, the country is striving to maintain economic growth and its role as “the factory of the world.”

Only when China can get its competing forces in order, will billions breathe easy.