29 September 2009

Beijing Traffic Improves

For those heading to Beijing, China, to witness the official celebration of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic on October 1st, an unrivaled spectacle awaits them. The parade and show in Tiananmen Square will be truly awesome. And if the brown cloud that has shrouded much of eastern China for the last quarter century gives way to blue skies, over Tiananmen Square, at least, that will be the icing on the cake for China’s President Hu Jintao.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, automobile exhaust, coal-fired power plants, controlled agricultural burns that often get out of control, and coal and wood cooking stoves are largely responsible for the atmospheric brown clouds that now hang over more than a dozen of the world’s megacities, including Beijing. Ironically, the UN also says that were these brown clouds to be eliminated overnight, a rapid global temperature rise of as much as 2 degrees C could be triggered. The brown clouds are apparently masking the effects of climate change.

While those pressing for mandatory carbon emission cuts by China were doubtless disappointed by President’s Hu Jintao’s speech at the climate change summit at the UN last week. Others were encouraged by the voluntary measures that China announced. It would seem that President Hu Jintao and the leaders of the other emerging G20 powers are fully aware that self-interest and global-interests are not mutually exclusive.

Twenty-five years ago when I lived in Beijing, there were only a few thousand cars in the city. Most of those belonged to foreign embassies and diplomats. Today, there are an estimated 3.8 million cars in the city with the numbers increasing by 10,000 each week. But the gridlock that characterized Beijing traffic since the 90s, has given way to a much reduced and more orderly flow. Traffic regulations are now being enforced. Since July 2008, as in other megacities of the world, the number of cars allowed on the roads are being regulated by license plate numbers. Some get around the rules by owning two cars or two sets of license plates. But there is an appreciable reduction in the number of cars on the streets. Last month, in Beijing, I was actually getting to my meetings too early!

If China can cut its carbon emissions as it has the number of cars on Beijing’s streets, its population will breathe easier.

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