Air Quality in China

This website has written extensively about air quality in China since the central government began to take the issue seriously in 2013.

That was the year the media coined the term “Airpocalypse” to describe the off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing at the beginning of 2013, and used again during the extreme pollution in Shanghai at the end of 2013. 

Since then many measures implemented by the central and local governments have greatly improved air quality in China.

Average Air Quality for China

From 2013 to 2016 the annual average density of PM10 in the 338 prefecture-level and above cities monitored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) dropped by 15.5 percent.

The annual average PM2.5 density of the 338 cities in 2016 was 47 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3), a decrease of 6% from 2015.

The average PM2.5 density for the first eight months of 2017 was 42 μg/m3, a reduction of 2.3% from the same period a year earlier. However, this average increased back to 47 ug/m3 for the first ten months of the year.

At the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie stated that by 2035 the annual average PM2.5 density nationwide will be lowered to meet China's national healthy air standard of 35 µg/m3. The World Health Organization (WHO) standard for healthy air is much lower at 10 µg/m3.

Air Quality in China

Regional Air Quality

Of course, national averages for a country the size of China mean little. Our health is dependent on the quality of the air we breathe everyday. So regional air quality data is much more relevant.

Only 84 out of the 338 cities monitored achieved the national air quality standard in 2016, with both Beijing (73 µg/m3) and Shanghai (45 µg/m3) failing.

Between 2013 and 2016, however:

  • the density of PM2.5 fell 33 percent in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region
  • the density of PM2.5 fell 31.3 percent in the Yangtze River delta
  • the density of PM2.5 fell 31.9 percent in the Pearl River delta
  • the density of PM2.5 fell 18 percent in Beijing
  • the density of PM2.5 fell 27 percent in Shanghai

Air Quality in China 2017

We noted in our Shanghai smog article that air quality in Shanghai has continued to improve in the first 10 months of 2017. 

Moreover, Shanghai bettered its 2017 air quality target set in 2013 by the central and local governments one year ahead of schedule in 2016. 

The fight against air pollution in North China, however, has had a bumpier ride this year. Smog in Beijing actually increased in the first four months of 2017, but reduced dramatically from May to August.

The average PM2.5 density between January and August in Beijing was 60 ug/m3, down 4.8% percent compared with the same period in 2016, and equaling the value it is supposed to achieve for all of 2017. 

However, September was not a good month. Air quality in Beijing deteriorated dramatically with the density of PM10 surging by more than 50% over the same month one year earlier. Fortunately, October seems to have been a better month as the average PM2.5 density for Beijing for the first ten months of the year still came in at 60 ug/m3, a 6.2% reduction from the January to October period in 2016.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as a whole, however, continues to suffer an increase in smog 2017. In the first three quarters of the year the density of PM10 increased by 10.7 percent, and the density of PM2.5 increased by 10.3 percent.

With winter here and considering the ominous forecasts it will be very difficult for Beijing and the rest of northern China to achieve their targets for the whole year.

Government Measures to Improve Air Quality in China

The Central government is still determined to achieve its 2017 targets for air quality in all parts of China and is implementing many new measures to achieve them. These include:

  1. Committing billions of dollars over the coming 3 years to convert winter heating systems from coal to clean energy. More than 3 million households in Northern China will be refitted to use electricity or natural gas.
  2. Stricter enforcement of environmental laws saw huge increases in the number of companies punished and forced to cease production due to violations. Increased inspections throughout northern China caught many more violators.
  3. In August The Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a new Battle Plan to fight pollution for the winter of 2017, 2018 in Beijing and other northern Chinese cities. The plan includes:
    - Reducing average concentrations of PM2.5 by 15 percent during the October 2017 to March 2018 winter season compared to the previous year for the whole region.
    - Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang cities will have to cut their average PM2.5 density by 25 percent relative to the same period in 2016, 2017.
    - Major steel producing cities must have plans in place to cut output by as much as 50 percent during the winter.
    - Establishment of a new Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei regional environmental protection bureau.
  4. Beijing’s measures to cut air pollution to meet their 2017 target include:
    - Investing  US$2.6 billion (RMB 18 billion) to combat air pollution in 2017.
    - Cut coal consumption by 3 million tons.
    - Shut down at least 500 polluting plants.
    - Strictly supervise heavy polluting vehicles.
    - Work at construction sites which generate dust will be suspended from Nov 15, 2017 to March 15, 2018.
  5. Small coal-fired furnaces in cities at the prefecture-level and above across China will be shut down in 2017. 
  6. Coal-fired power plants around China will be upgraded to achieve ultra-low emissions and energy conservation between 2017 and 2020.
  7. Increasing the use of ethanol blended with gasoline to reduce vehicle emissions.

Costs of Improving Air Quality in China

In September and October 2017 over 130,000 polluting companies in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region have been forced to suspend production or shut down.

Some reports acknowledge that billions of Yuan in losses will occur due to factory and plant suspensions.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, however, declared that fighting air pollution will only benefit and not harm China’s economy.

New Air Quality in China Targets for 2020

Beijing set a new target to reduce annual average PM2.5 density to 56 ug/m3 by 2020. Shanghai's target for 2020 is 42 ug/m3.

These amounts, however, are still well above healthy air standards. People living in many parts of China will need to protect themselves from air pollution for years to come. Read our air pollution solutions article to see how you can protect yourself from smog in China.

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