What Expats Need to Know About China Air Pollution

As the China air pollution issue rears its ugly head once again in the fall and winter months, China expats might be wondering what, if anything, the authorities have been doing to improve the situation.

In November 2015 some northern Chinese cities recorded the highest ever China air pollution numbers since air quality testing began. The reading for PM2.5 concentration was as high as 1,400 ug/m3 at some monitoring sites in Shenyang.

In our related air pollution in China article we discussed China's most significant legislative action to improve China Air Pollution; The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan unveiled by the Environmental Protection Ministry (MEP) in September 2013.

In this article we shall look at China's air pollution situation since then, and further steps being taken by the central government to improve it.

Please see our other article for information about air pollution in Shanghai.

China Air Pollution

Is China Air Pollution Getting Better?

China Air Pollution improved in most cities in the first three quarters of 2015.

Air quality improved significantly in the area around Beijing (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster), but was only slightly better around Shanghai.

Only 84 of 367 cities tested in China, however, met the China Air Quality standard for average annual PM2.5 concentrations of 35ug/m3.

Beijing saw a 16% drop in the PM2.5 level from its 2014 average of 85.9 to 72.1 ug/m3, while Shanghai dropped just 3% from 52 to 50.4; and this only due to a sharp drop in the 3rd quarter after Shanghai's average was actually up for the first half of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. 

The national PM2.5 average dropped about 10% to 47.2, still more than 4 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation.  

Of course national averages have no meaning for one's individual health, which is only affected by local air quality.

Air Quality Standards

The World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standard released in 2005 set the maximum 24-hour PM 2.5 exposure level at 25 ug/m3 and the maximum annual average exposure t 10 ug/m3. 

The US EPA air quality standard released in 2012 set the maximum 24-hour PM 2.5 exposure level at 35 ug/m3, and the maximum annual average exposure at 12 ug/m3.

The Chinese standard for safe air quality for the maximum 24-hour PM 2.5 exposure is 75 ug/m3, and maximum annual average exposure is 35 ug/m3.

Based on China's less strict standard, as long as the PM 2.5 level is below 75 ug/m3, its AQI is below 100 and, therefore, described as 'Good', whereas the same level would receive an 'Unhealthy' rating based on the US Air Quality Index.

For a more detailed comparison between China and US Air Quality Indexes and their relation to PM 2.5 levels, please read our China Air Quality article.

Impact of Air Pollution on China's Economy

China is certainly feeling the pinch from its serious air pollution issue. Long-term health effects and their related costs are often debated, but many economic effects can already be felt.

Inbound tourist numbers dropped continuously from 2012 to the first quarter of 2015, and only recently started to rebound slightly. Visitors from western countries, however, continue to drop. One of the main reasons for the drop in foreign visitors is the frequent reports on China air pollution in the international media.

China Air Pollution's Impact on China Food Safety

China air pollution has also been connected directly to another serious China health issue: food safety.

Chinese scientists revealed in February 2014 that smog caused by air pollution in China is likely inhibiting photosynthesis in plants.

He Dongxian of the China Agricultural University found that plants took about three times longer to grow in a greenhouse in Beijing than under artificial light. One more reason Chinese farmers must use excessive levels of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow their crops.

China Declares War on Pollution

The central government has taken notice of the economic damage caused by air pollution as well as people's anger towards poor air quality.

In March 2014, during the National People's Congress, China's Premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution.

China Revises its Environmental Protection Law

Following up on Premier Li's declaration of war on pollution, in April 2014 China's parliament adopted revisions to the Environmental Protection Law. This revised law significantly increases financial and other punishments for illegal emissions. The revisions went in to effect on January 1, 2015.

Ji Gang from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said the new punishments are much more stringent:

"For example, the provisions provide for accumulated punishments on a daily basis, meaning there will be no limit on how much fines violators of the law will face. The new law also includes provisions for the seizure of polluters' equipment. That is something we've been asking for over the past three decades."

Weaknesses in China's Battle Against Air Pollution

The local press often reports fines and punishments for violators of this new law. Many Chinese environmental law experts, however, say that the new law is too vague, penalties too low, and enforcement too weak, especially by local governments that rely on employment and taxes from polluting enterprises.

China's Vice Minister of environmental protection, Zhai Qing, admitted that poor coordination and communication between various ministries in the central government and between the various governments of different regions was also hampering its efforts to fight pollution.

A further sign that the central government was not confident in local governments enforcing the new Environmental Protection Law came when the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that it would carry out unannounced drone inspections of air quality around the country.

Previous inspections were not effective as factory owners were often informed in advance by local officials, giving them time to temporarily reduce emissions. 

Government Invests to Improve China Air Pollution

Apart from new regulations, the central government is increasing funding to tackle China Air pollution.

In May 2014 it was announced that the central Government allocated US$1.3 billion to tackle air pollution for the first half of the year, with a further $0.3 billion allocated in the second half of the year. This was double the amount invested in 2013.

Other Steps to Combat China Air Pollution

  1. China bans imports of Dirty Coal. Banning imports of dirty coal, mainly from Australia, with high ash and sulfur content from 2015, as well as raising the standard for domestic coal extraction and transportation
  2. Crack down on power plants not using sulfur removal equipment in China:
  3. Plans to introduce quotas for energy consumption of buildings in China:
  4. Charges levied on Chinese enterprises for sewage and exhaust gas emissions doubled in 2015, which will incentivize businesses to cut emissions:
  5. Increasing testing and research into Air pollutants in China:
  6. GDP dropped as means to measure performance of local Chinese officials. Previously GDP growth was the main way to rate the success of local officials, which caused them to often turn a blind eye to pollution for the sake of GDP growth:
  7. In place of GDP growth, local Chinese officials will be assessed on their success in reducing air pollution in their jurisdictions:
  8. August 2015: More Officials and companies punished for their failure to protect the environment http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-08/06/content_21513151.htm
  9. China pledges to establish a National Carbon Trading Scheme by 2017
  10. China pledges to cap its carbon emissions by around 2030
  11. Subsidies for Electric Vehicles increased
  12. Renewable Energy: China pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to 15 percent by 2020, and to 20 percent by 2030.
  13. New Law for Tax on emissions being drafted
  14. Government supports start-ups and returning Chinese engineers to develop new technologies for fighting China Air Pollution

New Law to Control Air Pollution

In August 2015 the central government passed a new Law on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution.

The new law requires governments above the county level to establish pollution monitoring systems and levy heavier fines for illegal activities that pollute the environment.

Provisions of the law include:

  • a stricter gasoline quality standard will established
  • local governments are obliged to ban low-quality coal for residential use
  • ban on dispersing toxic pesticides into trees and bushes in densely populated areas
  • emissions of moving vehicles will be checked by remote sensors positioned on streets
  • control areas for pollutant discharge of ships to be designated
  • greater environmental transparency to the public: 
  1. provincial-level governments will assess cities on their attainment of air quality targets and assessment results should be made public
  2. following environmental emergencies, air pollution should be monitored and details made public
  3. other items to be disclosed publicly: air quality standards, a catalogue of major polluters, contact information of environmental authorities, test results on new vehicles emissions, and sources and fluctuations of air pollution in important areas

However, the final draft of the law removed clauses allowing local governments to restrict or ban vehicles to fight air pollution. 

In The News

North China Cloaked In Smog in November 2015


Green Peace Report on China Air Pollution Results for the first half of 2015



Air Pollution Number One Concern Of Chinese People


China's overall air quality improved in 2014 and early 2015


PM 2.5 density down 17.4% in 161 Chinese cities during H1


China says 75 percent of cities failed to meet air standards in June 2015


Air pollution causes nearly one in five deaths in China—and over 4,000 per day



Recent bout of smog, haze in China likely caused by straw burning


Ozone  a serious problem in Summer months


Soot aggregates, the most noxious PM2.5


Companies officials punished for failure to control pollution 


Beijing air quality improves in 2015


China releases draft environment tax law


Composition of pollutants


Greenpeace Report about China Air Pollution for the first 9 months of 2015


Greenpeace Report on China Air Pollution for the first 6 months of 2015


China’s five-year air pollution control project


China Daily: Minister expresses appreciation for documentary on air pollution


Documentary on China Air Pollution takes China by storm


China's New Environmental Protection Minister: Chen Jining states that China needs huge emission cuts to return to blue sky


Polluters warned of price ‘too high to bear’


China inbound tourist numbers drop in 2014


Network to boost pollution monitoring


Air Quality in China in 1st quarter of 2014
Air Quality in China in April 2014
Air quality in China in May 2014
Air Quality in China in 1st half of 2014
Air Quality in China in July 2014

Serious Air pollution in Beijing and North China in October

Beijing measures to reduce air pollution during the APEC Meeting

China Declares War on Pollution

China's revised Environmental Protection Law


China's Clean Air Action Plan

Beijing's Clean Air Action Plan
China Central Government funding to tackle air pollution
China Investing in Renewable Energy


Straw Burning causing Air Pollution in China
China Carbon Trading Scheme


China to scrap millions of heavy polluting cars:

Poor government implementation of Air Pollution laws
Composition of China Air Pollution
New 3-day forecasting system for air pollution

China defines 'Smog-polluted day'
Coca Cola gives hazard allowance to expat staff for air pollution
WHO report regarding deaths from air pollution in China and around the world

http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_PHE_OEH_06.02_eng.pdf (pdf file)
China's tourism numbers affected by air pollution
Cities in China with better air quality attracting expats
When is air quality in Shanghai and Beijing the best:

China Reducing Coal Use to Fight Air Pollution
World Bank supporting China to install Solar Panels on school roofs

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