China Air Pollution Action Plan 2020

The launch of China's second air pollution action plan in 2018 marked the beginning of a new chapter in its battle for blue skies.

Air quality in many regions and cities across China improved significantly during the implementation of China’s first air pollution action plan called ‘The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17)’.

However, China was still far from enjoying healthy air in much of the country by 2018. In 2017 only 29% of the 338 prefectural level and above cities (98 cities) met China’s own relatively lax air quality standard with their annual average PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) concentration falling within 35 ug/m3. This was still an improvement on 2016 when just 24.9% (84 cities) met the standard. 

We take a look at the build-up to and finally the launch of the new China air pollution action plan 2020 below.

To learn about the results in the first year of the plan's implementation please see our China air pollution 2018 article.

Air Pollution Action Plan

New Action Plan in Development

Following the completion of China’s first air pollution action plan at the end of 2017, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced in January 2018 that a new nation-wide 3-year plan for 2018 to 2020 was being drafted and expected to be completed by June.

Despite successfully achieving all targets in the previous plan, the MEP stated that it would continue to ‘spare no efforts’ in its continuing battle against air pollution.

In early February Environment Minister Li Ganjie stated that the new 3-year plan would set a new target for residents of all of China’s 338 prefectural and above cities to enjoy ‘good’ or better air quality for 80% of all days in the year; representing within 100 on China’s Air Quality Index (AQI).

Some cities with poor air quality would also be required to lower their PM2.5 annual average concentration by 18%.

China Air quality Index classification:

  1. Excellent: AQI level within 50; corresponding to PM2.5 within 35 ug/m3
  2. Good: AQI from 51 to 100; corresponding to PM2.5 above 35 and within 75 ug/m3
  3. Lightly Polluted: AQI from 101 to 150, corresponding to PM2.5 above 75 and within 115 ug/m3
  4. Moderately polluted: AQI from 151 to 200, corresponding to PM2.5 above 115 and within 150 ug/m3
  5. Heavily polluted: AQI from 201 to 300, corresponding to PM2.5 above 150 and within 250 ug/m3
  6. Severely polluted: AQI above 300, corresponding to PM2.5 above 250 ug/m3


  • The 24-hour average PM2.5 concentration classified as at least ‘Good’ (within 75 ug/m3) is different than the standard for healthy air on an annual average basis (within 35 ug/m3).
  • These China AQI values are less stringent than the US AQI values corresponding to the same PM2.5 concentration up to 150 ug/m3, above which the AQI values are the same.
  • These AQI classifications are based on the Individual AQI (IAQI) for fine particulate matter (aka PM2.5) which is usually the dominant air pollutant in China’s cities. Only infrequently does the IAQI for other pollutants; coarse particulate matter (aka PM10), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), or nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceed that of PM2.5 and thereby become the dominant pollutant with its IAQI value becoming the overall AQI value.

Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) Launched

In mid-March, 2018 during China’s annual legislative meetings in Beijing, Environment Minister Li Ganjie again mentioned the drafting of the new air pollution action plan.

During the same session of China’s legislature, several functions related to protecting the environment previously under the authority of other ministries; such as Climate Change and emissions reductions within the authority of The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), were transferred over to Li’s ministry. At the same time, his now more powerful Ministry was rebranded as the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). 

Massive Environmental Overhaul

On June 10th the MEE announced that a ‘massive environmental overhaul’ targeting air pollution control in China would be launched.

Thousands of inspectors would be sent out to the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and Surrounding Areas (BTH and Surrounding Areas) region, the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region and the Fenhe and Weihe River Plains (Fen-Wei Plains) region to uncover environmental issues. 

The inspection would be completed by the end of April 2019.

State Council Air Pollution Directive

On June 13th China’s cabinet, known as the State Council, under Premier Li Keqiang released a statement demanding that PM2.5 be significantly reduced by 2020.

The key regions for air pollution control in China would institute:

  • A ban on new production capacity for steel, coking, and electrolytic aluminum with targets set for eliminating overcapacity.
  • A coal consumption cap. 
  • Elimination of coal-burning power-generation units and boilers that fail standards.

As well,  some measures to be implemented on a nationwide scale were included in the statement:

  • Raise the share of railway cargo transportation and begin the removal of inland river vessels older than 20 years.
  • Stricter standards for gasoline and diesel to be implemented by Jan 1st, 2019.

The Party to Lead in the Fight Against Air Pollution

On June 24th, 2018 the central leadership and the State Council published a new Directive setting goals in the fight against pollution in China including to “make people happy about seeing more blue skies”.

The Directive lists various policies, measures and targets including.:

  • The fight against pollution will be led by the Party
  • Heads of the Party and government at the provincial, city and county level will be responsible for meeting antipollution targets. Those who fail to meet the targets and cause environmental damage ‘will be put on record and subject to a lifelong accountability system’.
  • Local governments are required to develop annual plans to fight pollution and submit yearly reports to the central government. 
  • China to set up an independent supervision system to monitor local governments implementation of antipollution measures.
  • By 2020, the 338 prefectural and above level cities should enjoy 80% of days with at least ‘good’ air quality.
  • Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides should be reduced by at least 15% from 2015 levels.
  • By 2035 China’s environment should see a fundamental improvement where “people's lifestyle have become environmentally friendly".

Blue Sky Air Pollution Battle Plan 2020

On July 3rd, 2018 the State Council finally published the final version of the long awaited new 3-year air pollution action plan (2018-2020) dated June 27th. 

The English name for the new plan is ‘The Three-Year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War Plan’, but is also sometimes called 'The Blue Sky Defense Battle Plan’ or 'The Blue Sky Battle Plan'.

The name referred back to a speech by Premier Li in 2017 when he stated  “We will make our skies blue again.”

Here is the official Chinese version of the Blue Sky Battle Plan

Action Plan (2018-2020) Vs. Action Plan (2013-2017)

China’s first Air Pollution Action Plan only called for reductions of the larger coarse particulate matter, PM10, on a nationwide scale. Reduction targets for the much more dangerous PM2.5 were only set for 3 key regions; Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) region, Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region, Pearl River Delta (PRD) region; plus the capital city of Beijing.

In 2013 only a very few Chinese cities were testing for PM2.5. concentrations. Requiring all 338 prefectural and above cities to start monitoring PM2.5 in real-time by 2015 was actually one of the stipulations in the 2013-2017 action plan. 

With data for PM2.5 concentrations across the country now available since 2015, the new 2020 Action Plan stipulates that all of the 338 cities that had not yet met China’s own standard for healthy air as of 2015 must reduce their PM2.5 concentration 18 percent by 2020.

Base Year for Action Plan Targets

The base year for the targets in the Blue Sky Defense Battle Plan (2018-2020) is 2015 instead of 2017.

This is to match the air pollution action plan with targets set in the section for environmental protection of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016- 2020)

Key Regions Targeted in the New Action Plan

Many of the cities yet to meet China’s air quality standard in 2015 as well as yet to meet the 18% reduction of their 2015 annual average PM2.5 concentration by the end of 2017 (which would also eliminate them as a target from this new plan) are located in the 3 ‘key regions’, which are the primary focus of the new air pollution action plan.

Three 'key regions' for Air Pollution Control in China:

  1. Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) and Surrounding Areas region: An expansion of the previous BTH region. Now monitoring 28 cities including the 2 large municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin and 26 other cities in Shanxi, Shandong, and Henan provinces; therefore often called the BTH 2+26 region.
  2. The Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region: Monitoring 41 cities in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces and including Shanghai municipality.
  3. The Fenhe and Weihe (Fen-Wei) Plains region: Monitoring 11 cities in Shaanxi province (including its capital Xi’an), Henan province; and Shanxi province. This area was not a key target region in China’s first air pollution action plan, but its air pollution had increased in the preceding few years causing it to be a big concern of China's environmental authorities.

As the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, located in Guangdong province, with its 9 monitored cities including Guangzhou and Shenzhen, had already met China’s healthy air standard by 2015, it would no longer be a key target region of this new air pollution action plan.

More Nationwide and Local Targets for 2020

Other nationwide targets for 2020 listed in the new air pollution action plan include:

  • The number of ‘good’ air quality days during the year should reach 80% for all 338 cities.
  • The number of days with heavily polluted air; PM2.5 above 150 ug/m3, during the year should decrease by at least 25%.
  • Emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) should be reduced by at least 15%
  • Emissions of nitrogen oxides should be reduced by at least 15%
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) to decrease by 10%; this would help reduce ground-level Ozone (O3) pollution which is created when VOCs react with nitrogen oxides
  • A reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases to combat climate change. 
  • Improved antipollution laws and enforcement.
  • More financing channels for projects which can improve air quality.
  • Improve monitoring and information disclosure related to air pollution data.
  • New energy vehicles: Production and sales to reach around 2 million annually.
  • Automobile, ship and oil products: Upgrade quality and standards.
  • Public transportation and logistics: Encourage the use of new or clean energy.
  • Regional coordination: Establish a mechanism and strengthen cooperation to fight air pollution between regions.
  • “The country's air quality and people's satisfaction with it should significantly improve after three years of work.” 

The Blue Sky action plan also sets some location specific targets including:

  • Hebei province: Steel production capacity will be reduced to within 200 million tons by 2020 down from 286 million tonnes in 2013.
  • Steel, coke and primary aluminium production: No new capacity in the key battlefield regions.
  • Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong and Henan: Reduce coal consumption by 10%.
  • YRD region: reduce coal use by 5%.
  • Northern Chinese cities: Continue replacing coal with gas for winter heating systems. 
  • Other Rural Areas: Electricity to replace coal for heating. Such a switch would not be easy as using electricity to heat homes is less cost effective than coal heating.
  • Some key cities: Change all buses to run on new energy.

  • Winter Campaigns: Launch major campaigns in the 3 key regions to reduce air pollution during winter months.
Blue Sky Battle Plan
Air Pollution Beijing

Air Pollution Still Occasionally Attacks Beijing, But Blue Skies Are Much More Common Than Before

Local Air Pollution Action Plans

Even before the final version of the national air pollution action plan was published, some regions and cities had begun to release drafts of their local plans for 2018 to 2020:

Unfortunately, the targets in these 2020 plans are still yet to meet China’s own standard for healthy air, let alone the World Health Organization’s (WHO) much stricter standard for annual average PM2.5 concentration within 10 ug/m3 or the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard of 12 ug/m3. So it would be wise for all expats moving to China to find solutions for air pollution while here.

  • Guangdong Air Pollution Action Plan (2018-2020): Although no longer a ‘key region’, Guangdong province released  the draft of its own Action plan targeting annual average PM2.5 concentration to be reduced “to about 30 ug/m3 by 2020."

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