Want to Cut Air Pollution? Easy: Make the Olympics Permanent

From a new working paper by Yuyu Chen, Ginger Zhe Jin, Naresh Kumar, and Guang Shi called “The Promise of Beijing: Evaluating the Impact of the 2008 Olympic Games on Air Quality”:

To prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games, China adopted a number of radical measures to improve air quality. Using officially reported air pollution index (API) from 2000 to 2009, we show that these measures improved the API of Beijing during and after the Games, but 60% of the effect faded away by the end of October 2009. Since the credibility of API data has been questioned, an objective and indirect measure of air quality at a high spatial resolution – aerosol optical depth (AOD), derived using the data from the NASA satellites – was analyzed and compared with the API trend. The analysis confirms that the improvement was real but temporary and most improvement was attributable to plant closure and traffic control. Our results suggest that it is possible to achieve real environmental improvement in an authoritarian regime but the magnitude of the effect and how long it lasts depend on the political motivation behind the policy interventions.


I believe you mean: "aerosol optical depth".

Stephen J. Dubner


Eileen Wyatt

Uh... the NYT says that factories were closed across "a large swath of Northern China" for two months prior to the Beijing Olympics. This doesn't strike me as a sustainable change, particularly if economists are counting on China to goose the world's economic growth.

Andrew Bressler

The traffic and air in Los Angeles were wonderful during the 84 Olympics.


Well, as I do, sitting less than a mile from the 2012 Olympic site I expect a sudden uprush in air pollution as the local two lane major roads effectively reduce to one lane thanks to special "Olympic lanes" which will (kind of obviously) reduce already busy local metropolitan routes to a standstill, with all the attendant extra pollution.

Anybody who'd rather be here than me can rent our small modernized apartment in a classic East London two storey building for a relatively modest fee - email: idontwanttochoke at st.ian.co.uk. Really, I'm serious; a good offer that'll pay for a holiday in Scotland while the Olympics are on would be entertained, i don't want to be here while the police go all MP-5K on the local residents during the Olympics.


There is heaps of pollution in china! they shud do something about it! when i visited china on a holiday... first of all let me just say "it was the worst country i visited out of thailand, india and hongkong" it stnk so bad
and the pollution levels were so high that i could eat the air.. the air felt so think to breathe .. it felt like i could eat it for breakfast


From a sustainability point of view, I think those two major factors will have to be lowered permanently anyways. At the very least there is considerable pressure to do so by, essentially, everyone. There are also trade-offs, such as between ease of getting to work and traffic control, and plant closure and job loss.

Lao Greg

Those darn communists should really do something about pollution but they just aren't politically motivated!!!!

The paper basically ignores the growth of passenger car ownership in Beijing. The middle & upper classes have been putting *750,000* new cars on Beijing's roads *each year* of the last few years. Thats probably how many cars they had in total in 2000. Its pretty hard to counteract the effects of that much car growth, especially since more cars means more time in traffic, and more time in traffic means more exhaust for the same trip. The car boom has really only taken off in the last few years. It was just getting underway in 2008.

If the government was really motivated to do something about pollution, they would try to curb auto use....oh wait, Beijing just capped the number of 2011 car registrations to about 250,000 (yes a third of 2010), raised parking prices, and introduced rush hour restrictions on outside plates. I've lost count of the number of new subway lines.

I have to wonder why the authors didn't address car growth. With 2 authors hailing from Pekin U they should be aware of it, unless they are writing this while overseas. (To be fair, there was a variable: 1999 vehicle*time^2, buried in some panel data results and never discussed at all)

The Chinese government has shown a pretty reliable commitment to reducing the pollution and energy intensity of the economy over time, the problem is that as the richer half of the country approaches western incomes, we are all screwed if they adopt the habits that we have in the U.S.

Care to think about what 700 million Chinese driving SUV's to the office would mean?



If more tourists saw this smoggy view of Beijing, the empty airplanes landing would tell the enterprising Chi-Coms to at least re-instute cheaper anti-smog measures. Methinks a system of windmills MIGHT pay for itself whilst dispersing some of this polution. Some smokestack clean up and "looping" traffic around downtown might help. jobs would be lost as no more olympics awesome construction to occupy workers displaced. now we cannot see beautiful scenery and buildings because of smog not to mention needing a gas mask!