After 5 years (2013-2017) of steadily decreasing China Air Pollution 2018 was another successful year in China's battle for blue skies. A new air pollution action plan was drafted and launched. As well, many other measures to increase air pollution control in China were implemeted in 2018.
However, not all the 2018 China air pollution news was good. Some periods during the year experienced worse pollution than 2017; some cities in China saw a deterioration of air quality compared to 2017, and at least one air pollutant increased in 2018.
Moreover, only 121 out of China's 338 monitored cities (35.8%) met China's own lax standard for healthy air quality in 2018. So air pollution solutions are still critical when living in most parts of the country.
Below we take a look at the China air pollution 2018 statistics by quarter, full-year and over the critical autumn-winter period from October 1st, 2018 to March 31st, 2019. As well we list some of the new measures implemented and difficulties encountered.
The last quarter of 2017 saw a great improvement in air quality in China compared to the same quarter of 2016. Early January 2018, however, saw the first serious attack of air pollution for the 2017-2018 winter season in North China.
An Orange alert, the second highest of the four-tier air quality warning system, was raised in several Northern cities including Beijing and Tianjin requiring the shutting of some factories and other antipollution measures to be implemented.
The emergency responses produced exceptionally good results, as by the end of January many parts of Northern China had experienced their best month for air quality since measurements for fine particulate matter, PM2.5, started to be collected in 2012.
The 13 cities of the original Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) region in North China enjoyed “good” air quality 64.5% of days in January, 28.3 percentage points higher than the year before.
Beijing’s monthly average PM2.5 concentration fell to 34 ug/m3, a 70% reduction compared to January 2017. It was the first month ever that Beijing achieved China’s own healthy air standard on a monthly basis since this pollutant started to be monitored.
Not all of the country, however, enjoyed such good air quality at the beginning of 2018.
In late January and early February Shanghai and the surrounding Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region experienced a bout of very bad air pollution. For the month of January the region saw a 20% surge in emissions.
In fact both Shanghai and Guangzhou recorded higher concentrations of PM2.5 than Beijing in the first two months of the year.
The relatively good air quality in North China in early 2018 did not last for the whole of the first quarter.
In March the monthly average PM2.5 concentration climbed to 80 ug/m3 in the BTH region, an increase of 27% from the same month in 2017.
Only due to the exceptional air quality in January and February in Northern China was there a comparative improvement in the first quarter 2018 China air pollution data for that region:
Air quality in China for the first half of 2018 continued to show improvement over the same period in 2017:
At the beginning of July 2018, China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) unveiled the new air pollution action plan for 2018 to 2020, known officially as ‘The Three-Year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War Plan’, but often referred to as 'The Blue Sky Battle Plan' or 'The Blue Sky Defense Battle Plan’.
At the same time, air pollution control in most parts of China continued to show improvements. This resulted in the data for the first three quarters of 2018 showing an ever larger percentage reduction in PM2.5 concentrations for most regions and cities compared to the same period of 2017:
The Blue Sky Battle Plan (2018-2020) required the 3 key regions to implement special Winter Air Pollution Battle Plans to tackle air pollution for the autumn to winter months of October to March.
Such a battle plan had proven very effective for the BTH 2+26 region in the previous 2017-2018 winter season. Winter traditionally sees a 30% increase in air pollution in this part of China mainly due to the increased use of coal to power centralized indoor heating systems.
This started to change in 2017 when the government began switching to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) to power indoor heating systems in many Northern Chinese cities.
The switch did not go entirely smoothly in the winter of 2017 due to a lack of gas, forcing some locations to turn back on their coal-fired systems. However, the air quality that winter in the 2+26 region did see significant improvement, at least partly due to the winter air pollution battle plan.
The target set in the first Winter Battle Plan for a 15% reduction was exceeded by a wide-margin in the last quarter of 2017, with the average PM2.5 concentration falling by 34.3% year on year. The improvement for the whole autumn-winter period (October to March) was lower at about 25%, but still a large beat of the original target.
A significant part of this improvement, however, has been attributed to weather conditions during the winter months of 2017-2018. According to a Greenpeace representative, favorable weather conditions was the reason for about half of the reduction in air pollution.
So any further reduction from this much lower base would be difficult to achieve.
Earlier in 2018 a draft of the Winter Battle Plan for 2018-2019 set the PM2.5 average concentration reduction target at 5% for the BTH and Surrounding Areas region. But in October the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) lowered this target to 3%, citing forecasts for weather conditions to be less favorable the coming winter.
This year’s battle plan also gave local governments more leeway in deciding how to fight air pollution in their areas, unlike the previous winter when the central government set many more detailed and blanket measures for the entire BTH 2+26 region.
Apart from the BTH 2+26 region, the Fen-Wei plains region was given a winter battle plan target for a 4% reduction in its average PM2.5 concentration. This would mainly be achieved by requiring the 11 cities in this region to also switch from coal to natural gas for household heating.
And the YRD region was set a target for a 3% reduction of average PM2.5 concentration for the autumn to winter months.
Despite the Winter Battle Plans, North China experienced some poor air quality at the beginning of the coverage period in October 2018.
Later, in early November, the BTH and Surrounding Areas region and the Fen-Wei Plains region were both attacked by the first severe air pollution of 2018. This was followed by more bouts of air pollution in the middle and late November. Air pollution alerts were raised in all of the three key target regions, including the highest red alert raised in some cities.
The poor air quality in the fourth quarter meant a relative deterioration in average air quality for the the BTH 2+26 region as a whole compared to the year before; although other regions did see improvement.
Average PM2.5 concentrations in the final quarter of 2018 compared to the last quarter of 2017:
Despite the worse air quality for the 4th quarter in the BTH 2+26 region, the country met all its air pollution China 2018 targets.
The full autumn-winter period of October 2018 to March 2019 covered by the Winter Battle Plans saw a deterioration in average air quality compared to the year before for the BTH 2+26 region as a whole, which, therefore, did not meet its 3% reduction target.
Greenpeace blamed part of the deterioration on an increase in coal usage during this winter season.
Coal is still the main source of energy in China, accounting for more than 60% of China's energy consumption
However, improvements in air quality during the autumn-winter period were still enjoyed in the YRD region and most major cities within the 3 key regions:
Apart from the Blue Sky Defense Battle Plan, many other air pollution control measures and developments were initiated in China in 2018 including:
A new study published in 2018 also brought a valuable insight that could help in the ongoing fight against air pollution in China.
This study carried out by Chinese and American researchers and published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded that targeting formaldehyde emissions could be the key to reducing serious haze in Beijing and other Northern Chinese cities during winter months.
The study contends that reducing formaldehyde is more effective than measures to control just sulfur dioxide which has been a key focus of wintertime air pollution control in China.
Sources of formaldehyde in the air include emissions from vehicles and major industrial facilities such as oil and chemical refineries.
Apart from PM2.5 concentrations in most Chinese cities still exceeding its healthy air standard, other problems also surfaced.
While PM2.5 and four of the other five air pollutants all dropped in 2018, ground level ozone (O3) increased, continuing a trend from the previous years. However, this increase could partly be caused by China's great success in reducing PM2.5, a pollutant which can actually "suck up the radicals needed to generate ozone pollution" according to a recent study.
Excessive ground level ozone (O3) can damage the lungs leading to coughing, sore throat, inflammation, and aggravation of bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema. Authorities, however, state that the danger from ozone is still low based on current levels in China.
More reports bringing into question the reliability of China's air pollution data also came out in 2018. Several small cities such as Linfen in Shanxi province were accused of falsifying data between 2017 and 2018. One city in Ningxia province and another in Hunan were caught using mist cannons to spray air pollution monitoring equipment in late 2017 in order to bring down readings. The same technique was used earlier by officials in Jiangxi and Henan provinces.
However, more frequent reporting of such incidents can be seen as a good sign as the central government cracks down on such practices. Reports of increased punishments handed down to local officials caught tampering with monitoring equipment were also more frequent in 2018.
In March 2019 China's Minister of Ecology and Environment (MEE), Li Ganjie, referring back to these cases stated that “What we hated most was such falsification of data,” “I would not dare to say this in the past but now I can vow that our data is truthful, accurate and complete”.
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