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 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.
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.
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 at 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.
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 is the frequent reports on China air pollution in the international media.
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.
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.
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 into effect 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."
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 still 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.
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.
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:
However, the final draft of the law removed clauses allowing local governments to restrict or ban vehicles to fight air pollution.