Shanghai Air Quality 2018

In 2018 Shanghai air quality did not meet China’s ambient air quality standard, but it did improve on the previous year, and was significantly better than in 2013.

2013 is the first year for which we have an official annual average PM2.5 concentration value available for Shanghai.

PM2.5, aka fine particulate matter, is commonly used as a proxy for air pollution and what the China air quality index (AQI) is usually based on.

2013 was also the year the central government launched its first national air pollution action plan; 'The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17)' and Shanghai launched its associated 'Shanghai Clean Air Action Plan (2013-17)'.

Shanghai’s clean air action plan set a target for the city to reduce its annual average PM2.5 concentration to 48 ug/m3 by 2017 from 62 ug/m3 in 2013. 

By 2016 Shanghai had already reduced the PM2.5 annual average density to 45 ug/m3, and in 2017 the target was exceeded even further when it fell to 39 ug/m3.

China released its second national air pollution action plan, officially titled ‘The Three-Year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War Plan’, but often referred to as The Blue Sky Action Plan, in July of 2018.

In this article we look at the launch of Shanghai’s new air pollution control plans and measures in 2018, as well as the Shanghai air quality statistics for that year.

China Blue Sky Action Plan

China’s first air pollution action plan (2013-2017) designated the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region, which includes Shanghai city, as one of the 3 key battlegrounds for air pollution control in China along with the Beijing-Tianjin and Hebei (BTH) region and the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region.

The Blue Sky Action Plan replaced the PRD with the Fen-Wei plains region, but the YRD remained one of the 3 key regions for the 2018-2020 air pollution action plan.

This region includes 41 cities which are monitored for PM2.5 and five other air pollutants; coarse particulate matter (PM10), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The concentration of PM2.5 is usually considered the most harmful to human health compared to the concurrent amounts of these other pollutants in China. Recently, however, ground-level ozone has occasionally been more serious than PM2.5 in some cities. When ozone’s individual air quality index (IAQI) value is the highest of all IAQIs it is labeled as the ‘primary’ pollutant and its IAQI becomes the overall AQI value.

Health Impacts of the 6 Air Pollutants 

Six air pollutants are monitored and their amounts published as part of China's Air Quality Index. All these pollutants are detrimental to our health as described here:

  • PM2.5 (fine particulate matter): These are particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. They are small enough to breath deeply into our lungs and enter the blood stream. Studies have shown they can affect both our pulmonary and cardiovascular health leading to bronchitis, asthma and lung disease; as well as heart disease, strokes, and cancer. They also can affect brain development. 
  • PM10 (course particulate matter): Particles less than 10 microns in diameter. The larger of these particles; 2.5-10 microns range, are mostly exhaled, but can still lead to respiratory and nasal irritation and infection.
  • Ground-level ozone: Ozone exposure can lead to throat irritation, chest pain and, in the long-run, more serious damage to our lungs.
  • SO2 (Sulfur dioxide): Affects both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems leading to asthma, infections, and eye irritation.
  • NO2 (nitrogen dioxide): Formed around roads from vehicle emissions. Can lead to bronchitis, asthma, and heart disease. 
  • CO (carbon monoxide): Reduces movement of oxygen in the body. At high concentrations it can cause nausea, headaches and dizziness.

Blue Sky Action Plan Targets

Unlike the first national air pollution action plan which set percentage reduction targets for just the 3 key regions and Beijing city, the new national action plan sets a target for all of China's monitored 338 prefectural and above cities which had not yet met its ambient air quality standard (annual average PM2.5 density within 35 ug/m3) by 2015. These cities are required to reduce their PM2.5 average 18% by 2020 from the 2015 base year.

The Blue Sky Battle Plan also set the goal for all 338 cities to enjoy 80% of all days during the year having at least ‘good’ air quality based on China’s air quality index classification system.

The threshold for ‘good’ air quality in China is an AQI reading within 100 on the China aqi, which means a 24-hour average PM2.5 concentration within 75 ug/m3; and with the ozone IAQI also not exceeding 100.

Shanghai Air Pollution Target

In 2015 Shanghai’s annual average PM2.5 concentration was 53 ug/m3, so above the national air quality standard, requiring it to reduce its PM2.5 average 18% by 2020.

By the end of 2016, however, the Shanghai annual average PM2.5 concentration was 39 µg/m3, so already more than 26% below the 2015 base year.

New Air Pollution Action Plan for Shanghai

Although Shanghai has already exceeded the target for PM2.5 reduction stipulated in the Blue Sky action plan the city authorities are determined to improve Shanghai air quality even further.

On January 9th, 2018 the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau (since renamed the  Shanghai Bureau of Ecology and Environment) published a draft version of its seventh 3-year environmental protection plan which set the target for Shanghai’s PM2.5 concentration to be reduced to “steadily below 40 micrograms per cubic meter” by 2020.

This was more ambitious than an earlier target for 2020 of 42 ug/m3 that was set just one year earlier in January 2017.

Is the Shanghai Air Pollution Target Ambitious

Later in January 2018 when Shanghai environmental authorities released the final statistics for air quality in 2017 it again mentioned this new target of average PM2.5 ‘steadily below 40’ by 2020. However, at the same time it was announcing that it had already achieved this target in 2017, which came it at 39 ug/m3.

So, actually, this new target for 2020 was not ambitious, especially considering that it does not meet China’s own ambient air quality standard, let alone the World Health Organization’s (WHO) much stricter standard of 10 ug/m3. (China’s standard is actually equivalent to the intermediate target goals (ITs) recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for developing countries.) 

Shanghai Air Quality Targets for 2020 and 2022

Acknowledging the target of ‘steadily below 40 ug/m3’ was not so ambitious, when the Shanghai government officially passed its new 5-year clean air action plan in July 2018 it tightened the 2020 target to 37 ug/m3 and set a new target for 2022 of within 35 ug/m3, which would finally meet the China air quality standard.

This plan calls for the city to completely eliminate heavily polluted days; with the AQI over 200 (24-hour PM2.5 average above 150 ug/m3) by 2020. In 2017 Shanghai experienced two such days, one caused by PM2.5 and one caused by excessive ground-level ozone. This figure was way down from 2013 when Shanghai experienced 23 heavily polluted days

As well, the clean air plan calls for meeting the national goal of having the proportion of days with ‘good’ air quality; with the AQI within 100, to be above 80% by 2020. In 2017 Shanghai city enjoyed ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ air quality for 75.3 percent of all days.

Shanghai’s clean air action plan also acknowledges that ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) must be tackled. In 2017 ozone already accounted for about 58% of Shanghai’s polluted days, these coming mainly in the summer months as ground-level ozone is created through a reaction between sunlight and VOCs.

131 detailed measures were listed in the Shanghai clean air action plan (2018-2022) including:

  • Shanghai will reduce the consumption of coal 5% by 2020 based on the 2015 base year.
  • Oil and gas boilers will make use of low-nitrogen combustion technology.
  • Promotion of low-volatility solvent products.
  • VOC emissions will be monitored carefully.
  • Most vehicles used by government departments, taxi companies, sanitation and postal service providers and logistic and delivery companies will be required to use green energy.
  • 450 kilometers of bus-only lanes will be in use in Shanghai by 2020.
  • Low-sulphur fuel will be mandatory for ships entering Shanghai.

Longer Term Targets for Shanghai Air Quality

Shanghai authorities have also released longer-term development plans which target lower levels of PM2.5 further in the future.

In September 2017 the Shanghai government released the draft of a master plan for 2040 which calls for PM2.5 concentration to be reduced to about 20 ug/m3 by that year.

The completion year for the master plan was eventually brought forward to 2035 and officially released by the Shanghai government in January 2018 after it had received approval in principle from the State Council, China’s central government.

The 2035 plan calls for Shanghai to become an 'excellent global city' as well as an 'eco-friendly metropolis’ with the PM2.5 concentration falling to about 25 ug/m3 by 2035. 

Other Measures to Improve Shanghai Air Quality in 2018

Apart from the action plans listed above, the city authorities launched other policies and measures in 2018 to improve Shanghai air quality including:

Shanghai Air Quality 2018 Statistics

Shanghai and the surrounding Yangtze river delta (YRD) region were attacked by several bouts of serious smog in January and February 2018.

On January 30th, the PM2.5 concentration climbed to as much as 224 ug/m3, about 9 times the WHO standard, and the air pollution yellow alert was raised; the third highest of four levels.

In January alone, Shanghai experienced 2 ‘heavily polluted’ days, the same number for all of 2017, with PM2.5 being the cause of pushing the 24-hour AQI above 200.

In fact, Shanghai had a worse average concentration of PM2.5 than Beijing in early 2018.

By the end of the first half of 2018, Shanghai’s air quality was still worse on average compared to the same period of 2017.

Shanghai aqi January 2018
Shanghai aqi February 2018

Summertime 2018 Shanghai Air Quality

In order to stop deteriorating air quality, some districts of Shanghai launched air pollution campaigns in the summer of 2018 which brought good results.

Jiading district, an industrial zone of Shanghai and therefore one area with higher than average air pollution in Shanghai required many companies to close operations or retrofit their pollution emission systems. This helped to bring Jiading’s average PM2.5 concentration for August down to 41 ug/m3, 12.8% lower than the year before.

Such success helped turn the deteriorating Shanghai air quality situation around and by the end of August year-to-date average PM2.5 concentration was down to 38 ug/m3; five percent lower than the same period of 2017.

The other 5 pollutants also dropped during the summer months compared to 2017, partially due to more typhoons; and therefore less sunlight which reacts with VOCs to cause ground-level ozone pollution.

By the end of October the PM2.5 average for the first ten months was down to 35 ug/m3, an improvement of 5.4% year on year.

Wintertime 2018 Shanghai Air Quality

Winter is a typical time for higher air pollution in Shanghai.

During this time of year more pollutants are blown in on the prevailing winds from North China. Much of this increased pollution in the North at this time of year is caused by coal-powered winter heating systems. However, as China began to switch from coal to LNG-fired heating systems in 2017 the amount of PM2.5 blown in from the North should reduce.

To tackle the increased pollution during the wintertime, The Blue Sky action plan required the 3 key regions to implement special air pollution battle plans for the period of October 1st to March 31st.

The YRD region was given a  regional target to reduce PM2.5 concentration by 3% from the previous 2017-2018 winter.

Shanghai’s target as part of this regional battle plan only called for ‘continued improvement’ from the previous winter.

Last Quarter of 2018 Shanghai Air Quality

Despite the battle plan, Shanghai experienced several bouts of smog in October 2018, when the real-time PM2.5 concentration climbed to as much as 134 ug/m3.

Late November saw a few more bouts of pollution with the highest 24-hour AQI hitting 163 on November 28th with the air pollution blue alert raised.

Fortunately Shanghai air quality in December 2018 saw a significant year on year improvement with the monthly PM2.5 average at 37 ug/m3, a whopping 31.5% lower than December 2017.

This led to the quarterly air pollution data for Shanghai also showing an improvement. The quarterly average came in at 35 ug/m3, 12.5% lower than the same quarter of 2017.

Shanghai Air Quality 2018 Annual Statistics

Thanks to the improvement in the second half of the year, Shanghai’s air quality improved from 2017.

The annual average PM2.5 concentration fell to 36 ug/m3, a 7.7% reduction from 2017. This meant that Shanghai already surpassed its 2020 target of 37 ug/m3 set in its clean air action plan.

This average concentration is also 42% lower than in 2013 (62 ug/m3); quite an accomplishment!

Shanghai experienced 3 heavily polluted days in 2018, one more than 2017. Two of those days, as mentioned above, came in January and were caused by PM2.5, while the other was reportedly in June and caused by ground-level ozone. The historical Shanghai aqi data on the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Center website, however, shows the highest aqi for June was 184 on the 12th.

296 days were rated either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ for air quality in 2018 accounting for 81.1% of all days, thereby fulfilling another 2020 target in the Blue Sky action plan.

That, however still left 69 days with ‘lightly polluted’ or worse Shanghai air quality in 2018. The number of ‘good’ air quality days would also be much lower if based on the WHO standard for maximum daily PM2.5 exposure of 25 ug/m3, or the US aqi which classifies everything above 55.6 ug/m3 as unhealthy for everyone!

Ozone was again the cause of most of the polluted days in Shanghai, being the primary pollutant on 50.7% of polluted days in Shanghai in 2018.

It has been argued, however, that part of the blame for the increase in ozone pollution in China is the decrease in particulate matter (PM) pollution, a pollutant that actually soaks up some ozone.

The amounts of other pollutants in Shanghai in 2018 also hit record lows since 2013:

  • PM10 was down 7.3% to 51 micrograms per cubic meter
  • SO2 was down 16.7% to 10 micrograms per cubic meter
  • NO2 was down 4.5% to 42 micrograms per cubic meter

This, however, means that NO2 pollution in Shanghai is also yet to meet the China national air quality standard of 40 ug/m3.

2018-2019 Winter Shanghai Air Quality Statistics

For the full autumn to winter period of October 1st, 2018 to March 31st, 2019 covered by the Winter air pollution battle plan, Shanghai’s average PM2.5 concentration was 41 ug/m3, a 4.7% improvement on the previous year’s average of 43 ug/m3. So Shanghai easily fulfilled its target in this battle plan.

Shanghai also enjoyed 0 'heavily polluted' days this winter; 3 less than the previous winter.

The Battle for Blue Skies From Here On

The local environmental authorities admit that they have already implemented most of the measures they can think of to improve Shanghai air quality, and yet it is still not considered healthy.

Shou Ziqi, director of Shanghai Bureau of Ecology and Environment stated "The authorities have already taken as many anti-air pollution measures that we could think of over the past few years. So it will now be even more difficult if we want to achieve further improvements.”

Shou also admitted that “We mostly have the weather to thank for air quality last year,” as more typhoons in 2018 eased ground-level ozone generation.

Measures with bigger impacts on the economy and people’s lives will need to be implemented to turn Shanghai into a truly eco-friendly city. Zhou Jun, the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau Pollution Control division's deputy director stated “The easier part of our work has been done over the past few years such as removing polluting boilers and eliminating heavily polluting vehicles. Now comes the more detailed work, and it will require much more efforts to create visible improvement”.

As vehicle emissions are now the main cause of Shanghai air pollution, this is one area the city authorities need to continue to tackle.

Countries such as South Korea, which was recently declared the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country with the worst air quality, have been fretting about air pollution recently despite having lower real-time PM2.5 concentration highs and lower annual average PM2.5 concentrations in its capital Seoul than Shanghai.

Two recent review papers published by scientists from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies also remind us how serious air pollution is, concluding that PM2.5 harms all cells in our body.

Expats living in Shanghai, therefore, still need to take precautions and protect their health with air pollution solutions while living here.

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