Beijing isn't alone, though. It's one of nearly 300 cities in China that badly failed air-quality standard measurements in 2015, according to data collected by Greenpeace. And the effects are devastating: More than 1.6 million people per year die in China from breathing toxic air. To fight back, China's leaders have been waging a tough war on pollution by rolling out new technologies, capping coal use and using more renewable energy, such as solar and wind.
"It's too early to tell if the war on pollution is working," said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the intention is there. Top leadership has made a commitment to address the problem for the first time in decades." She estimates that visible results won't be seen for three to five years.
Air pollution is clearly very costly, though, to its $11-trillion-plus economy. It dings China's GDP about 6.5 percent annually, according to RAND Corp. estimates. Those costs are mainly driven by lost productivity, since factories are shut down on bad air days to avoid the dangerous health effects of breathing the dense, toxic air.
"Sick days and hospital visits all take a toll on the urban economy," said Anders Hove, associate director of research at the Paulson Institute. High levels of pollution are linked to serious chronic illnesses, like heart disease and lung cancer, which are costly to treat. And air pollution also affects tourism and outdoor recreation, he added.