• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.rev.1575383343.jpg);" data-share-image="/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.jpg"/><div class="header-background-color"/>

Combating the Smog in Beijing: Following in Los Angeles’ Footsteps?

October 26, 2015
With its outstanding economic growth at the beginning of 21st century, China is becoming a rising industrial world power. But its economic growth comes with heavy pollution, since coal is widely used as energy source in industrial production.

In recent years, air pollution, particularly smog, has become a major cause of concern in Beijing. To tackle this problem, the Chinese government has enacted several reforms, including stricter regulation on emissions, harsh punishment for polluters, and incentives for new energy development. One could compare the situation in Beijing to that of Los Angeles during the 1960s.[1] During this time, LA faced a similar smog crisis, and the government managed to alleviate the problem through environmental regulations. Although Los Angeles is still ranked today among one of the lowest cities for air quality in U.S., the pollution rates are much better than they were fifty years ago. Using Los Angeles as an example, can one predict the future of smog alleviation in Beijing? The experience of Los Angeles will offer some implications and insight, but whether Beijing can successfully address its air pollution depends on its future efforts for comprehensive legislation reform and effective implementation.

LA & Beijing: Similarities in pollution sources and ways of regulation

 Back in the 1960s, people in Los Angeles breathed some of the dirtiest air in the U,S.. Emissions from steel and chemical plants, oil refineries, trash incarcerators and vehicles had resulted in high ozone levels and thus collectively caused the smog crisis. In 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was enacted as the first federal law to regulate emissions from stationary and mobile sources.[2] Under the guidance of the CAA, the California state government issued smog certificates and installed catalytic converters for cars.[3] The CAA also authorized the EPA to regulate industry emissions.

Beijing’s current smog problem is due to high levels of PM 2.5, which can be easily inhaled; over time, these high PM levels can cause respiratory diseases and even cancer. Even before the current smog crisis, awareness of such pollution has been raised. In 2007, the then premier Wen Jiabao made 48 references to “pollution,” “environment,” or “environment protection” in his State of the Union address.[4] As the situation got worse over the past few years, people began to feel anxious about the environment, and massive protests against environment pollution occurred. Consequently, in 2013, the government announced a five-year, $277 billion spending spree to clean up the country’s air.[5] After two years of debate, the National People’s Representatives Conference, the highest legislative body of China, finally approved the new Environmental Protection Law in 2015. The current regulations aim to reduce air pollution by specifically focusing on reduction of industry and vehicle emissions. Under certain circumstances, there are “extreme measures” that may be implemented, including an odd-even limit on car plates[6] and directly shutting down factories. In the past, similar “extreme measures” are have proved to be only somewhat effective at the local level. For example, during APEC in 2014, the local government granted people special holidays to keep millions of vehicles off the roads, and about 10,000 factories in Beijing and the nearby Hebei Province were shut down in order to maintain a blue sky.[7] However, such an “APEC blue” doesn’t last long before the air pollution returns. These “extreme measures” have only short-term effectiveness, but they are not feasible in the long run.

LA & Beijing: Differences in people’s reactions and effectiveness of measures

In Los Angeles, it took some time before people realized that the smog was causing public health problems. People did not initially observe a problem with vehicle emissions, due to the inability to link brown smog with the invisible gas coming from cars. However, in 1952, researchers found that the ozone, a primary component of the smog, comes from complex chemical reactions of the hydrocarbons from oil refineries and automobile exhaust. Doctors subsequently determined that the smog had a negative impact on one’s health.[8] People then began to take the problem more seriously. When regulations came out, the automakers were initially slow to respond because they were worried about the costs of additional catalytic converters. And some politicians argued that reducing emissions in factories would cost jobs.[9] That being said, people have seen a change in the air quality thanks to these regulations. Since 1960, smog pollution in Los Angeles has dropped 98 percent.[10]

In Beijing, awareness of air pollution’s negative effects has been increasing since the smog crisis hit the city. The transparency of the government-measured data on PM 2.5 levels played an important role in raising such awareness. This data, though controversial, enabled people to self-monitor air quality. Several NGOs have started public-awareness campaigns to encourage the Chinese to cut emissions and urge the government to make stricter environmental laws. Beijing’s recent regulations thus have proved ineffective. According to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s Air Quality data, there was no significant decrease in PM2.5 levels through 2010-2014.[11] Albeit these figures were released before the enactment of the new Environment Protection Law this year, there were still several regulations on emission reduction and environment protection at the local level. 

Beijing PM2.5 Measure, Highest Value for Everyday

Beijing’s PM2.5 levels 

(Source: David Yanofsky, Quartz; data from U.S. Dept. of State)

Beijing’s Dilemma

The low effectiveness of early environmental regulations in Beijing is subject to the gaps between the enactment of legislation and their subsequent implementation. Firstly, regulations often contain vague language about responsibilities, making it hard to identify which government agency has the authority over enforcement. Secondly, there are conflicts of interests between the Chinese government and industries. In particular, local governments usually care more about economic growth than the environment, because the industries are their major source of tax revenue and also a strong driver of the GDP growth. Furthermore, the punishments for violating environmental regulations are not sufficient to bring the pollution down to a promising level. For example, even though there are pollution fines in place for many industries, companies tend to merely pay them off and just consider them as part of their production costs. Also, because of the lack of an effective supervision system, some will get away with polluting without repercussions.

A Hope for the Future

Any change takes time. Perhaps it is premature to judge the effectiveness of environmental regulations in Beijing. Despite its insufficiencies, Beijing still has the potential to reach pollution reduction levels comparable to those seen in Los Angeles. 

Similar to what Los Angeles did several decades ago, Beijing’s strategy to combat smog includes both emission reduction and the promotion of new energy resources. This kind of regulation forces people to change their behavior and triggers innovation. The government explicitly encourages the production and purchase of new energy vehicles by offering subsidies; such subsidies are promising to future pollutions alleviation.

Another important aspect is China’s new Environment Protection Law, which took effect in January 2015 and serves as the most strict environmental protection law in China to this day. The new law adds more severe punishment for pollution, holds government officials accountable for pollution monitoring, and provides ways for local NGOs to bring lawsuits regarding environment issues. Thus, the new piece of legislation is trying to address failures in former regulations and help Beijing adapt more ambitious goals of pollution reduction.

Furthermore, Beijing has a huge public transportation system, covering almost every community across the city. In recent years, with the development in new energy technology, Beijing is introducing diesel-electric hybrid buses into the public transportation system.[12] With more environmentally friendly buses, the utilization of the public transportation will have a positive impact on smog alleviation. This is clearly a crucial step in transforming into an environment-friendly lifestyle.

With the constantly high PM 2.5 levels, the Chinese are more concerned than ever. Although for now the environmental reforms in Beijing haven’t translated into a concrete improvement in air quality, people’s awareness is high, and there is potential for emission reduction and pollution alleviation in Beijing in the near future.


  [1] Ernest Kao, “Smog in Beijing like LA in ’60s, US EPA chief Gina McCarthy says”, South China Morning Post, December 13, 2013. 

  [2] “Summary of the Clean Air Act”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, accessed October 18, 2015. 

  [3] Jeremy Rosenberg, “How Los Angeles Began to Put its Smoggy Days Behind”, KCET, February 13, 2012.

  [4] Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes”, The New York Times, August 26, 2007.

  [5] John Upton, “China to spend big to clean up its air”, grist, July 25, 2013.

  [6] Zhouxiang Zhang, “Odd-even rule best for Beijing traffic”, ChinaDaily, December 4, 2014.

  [7] Christina Larson, “How Did Beijing Achieve ‘APEC Blue’?”, BloombergBusiness, November 18, 2014.

  [8] “The Southland’s War on Smog: Fifty Years of Progress Toward Clean Air”, South Coast Air Quality Management District, accessed October 19, 2015.

  [9] Sarah Gardner, “LA Smog: the battle against air pollution”, Marketplace, July 14, 2014. 

  [10] Zach McDonald, “Smog Pollution in LA Dropped 98 Percent in Last 50 Years”, LAcarGUY.com, accessed October 19, 2015. 

  [11] Lily Kuo, “Six years of Beijing air pollution summed up in one scary chart”, QUARTZ, April 10, 2014.

  [12] “Beijing to buy 1000 environment-friendly buses”, China.org.cn, accessed October 19, 2015. 

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>