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Beijing air pollution levels see noticeable drop -

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ELIZABETH JACKSON: China's capital city is known for many things, amongst them horrendous smog.

But this year, that has begun to change.

The sun has been actually appearing and jokes about Beijing's pollution are giving way to surprised comments about how lovely the weather is.

Here's our China correspondent, Stephen McDonell.

STEPHEN MCDONNELL: There are many great things about Beijing, but air quality has not been one of them.

The Chinese capital has become infamous for its heavy smog, which is thought to lead to widespread illness and certainly a lot of discomfort.

Yet something strange has been happening this year. The city's residents have been walking out their door and looking up to see a huge blue sky.

In recent months, air pollution has dropped significantly. Levels of harmful PM2.5 particulates have come down by a fifth, and officially "heavily polluted" days have halved over the last over five months.

What on earth could be happening?

The city's officials are so chuffed by what seems to be a turnaround that they invited journalists to Beijing's air quality measuring centre.

Fang Li is deputy director of Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau.

(Fang Li speaks in Mandarin)

"You've felt the standard of air improving," he said. "Over the past 12 months our efforts to clean up have actually been greater than at any time before."

He said that 476,000 older cars were denied registration last year, with hundreds of thousands more to come off the road yet.

Petrol quality has also been improved, we were told. Larger polluting factories have been moved further away from Beijing - to potentially become somebody else's problem.

Then there's been the recent weather, with wind hitting this inland metropolis and blowing away harmful airborne particulates.

Again, Fang Li from the local Environmental Protection Bureau.

(Fang Li speaks in Mandarin)

STEPHEN MCDONNELL: "If we were to move Beijing to Sydney," he said, "I think that our PM2.5 levels would drop from a level of 85 to around 50."

To really press home the point that improving air quality here could be result of good policy, we were taken to see a new gas-powered electricity plant.

Recently two coal-fired power stations were closed here and we were told that from the end of 2016 there will be no more coal-fired electricity produced in Beijing.

Zhang Wangcai is deputy director of Beijing's Department of Energy.

(Zhang Wangcai speaks in Mandarin)

"If we're talking about Beijing," he said, "by next year all our local power plants will be using clean energy."

Naturally it's possible that the worst polluting industries are being moved to where the international community don't notice them. But either way, for the moment at least, we're sucking in every chestful of nice air that we can get hold of.

This is Stephen McDonell in Beijing for Saturday AM.