Shanghai Smog

Shanghai smog is back! Actually it never went away, just lessened in severity from late-spring to mid-autumn.

Late-autumn through winter is the worst time of year for smog in China, so we must take precautions.

In late October the PM 2.5 density in Shanghai exceeded 170 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) for the first time in several months. This corresponds to a reading of 220 on both the US and China air quality index (AQI). And November has seen the Shanghai aqi soar even higher.

In this article we look at the air quality situation in Shanghai in 2017 and new government efforts to reduce the haze.

Is Shanghai Smog a Serious Issue

Shanghai smog was not a hot topic in the first three quarters of 2017. Certainly, compared to previous years, coverage in the local press was way down. 

New studies in both China and overseas, however, continue to emphasize the dangers of air pollution even at the lower levels we now ‘enjoy’ in Shanghai.

Fortunately, many solutions to protect our health from smog are not expensive and easily accessible in China. We look at these solutions in our air pollution solutions  article.

Shanghai Smog in 2016

In 2016 Shanghai smog was one of the hottest topics covered in the local press. Many articles compared the average PM2.5 density on a monthly and quarterly basis to those of the same period in 2015, showing significant improvements.

Shanghai’s average annual PM2.5 density was 45 ug/m3 for 2016 as a whole. This actually bettered; and one year ahead of time, Shanghai's target of reducing average PM2.5 density to 48 ug/m3 by 2017.

The target; reducing PM2.5 density in Shanghai by 20% from the 2012 base year, was laid down in the central government's 'Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17)' and the local government's 'Shanghai Clean Air Action Plan (2013-17)’. 

Shanghai Smog in 2017

This year, few reports on monthly and seasonal average PM2.5 readings have been published in Shanghai. Is this because we are being kept in the dark?

Unlikely! We are free to check any number of China apps that give us real-time hourly and average daily readings of Shanghai PM2.5 and AQI. But many of us have stopped checking these apps regularly as the air quality has improved. 

However, one rare news item in 2017 related to Shanghai smog did catch the attention of many expats. This story was covered in the western press and local expat media with sensationalist headlines such as ‘Living in Shanghai Takes Nearly 6 Years Off Your Life’, and ‘Living in China Takes 3½ Years Off Your Life’.

These headlines focused on the negative side of a recent China air pollution study which actually revealed some very positive developments in China’s struggle to improve air quality.

Shanghai Air Pollution Data 2017

We did get one report from the local official media for Shanghai average air quality for the first 5 months of 2017. The average density of PM2.5 was 43 μg/m3, a substantial decrease of 24.6 percent from the same period in 2016, but only slightly lower when compared to the full year 2016 average of 45 ug/m3.

One other report from the national media stated that "According to the city's environmental protection bureau, the average concentration of PM2.5 in the first half of this year stood at 42 micrograms per cubic meter, a drop of 22.2 percent year-on-year and a 36.4 percent reduction from 2013."

Other main air pollutants including PM10, SO2 and NO2 also decreased in the first 5 months of 2017; by 16.4 percent, 23.5 percent and 2.1 percent respectively.

Ozone, however, a serious pollutant which can harm our respiratory system, increased slightly in the first 5 months. This followed on from an increase in 2016 over 2015; so not a good trend.

In late November we finally received another annual average air quality update, which once again showed the improving smog situation in Shanghai. For the first 10 months of 2017 the average PM2.5 density was 37 ug/m3, a 14% reduction over the same period in 2016. 

Based on China AQI index labels, Shanghai enjoyed good or excellent air quality, with the AQI under 100, for 76.6% of days during the first 10 months; ie. 233 out of 304 days. Note that not all of these days would be classified as good or better according to the US AQI index.

This annual based PM2.5 average will be the lowest achieved in Shanghai in 2017 as the smog always increases during the final two months of the year. But beating the 2016 average still looks possible.

Worse Air Pollution This Winter

The bad news is that Shanghai smog might get worse this winter compared to last.

While Shanghai air quality has improved so far this year, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region saw an increase in smog

Why does this matter to us in Shanghai?

More than 20% of Shanghai smog is caused by pollution blown in from outside of Shanghai. Most of this effect is concentrated during the winter months when wind from the North dominates in Shanghai rather than from the South-East off the ocean as it does for most of the summer. So when Beijing catches a cold, Shanghai will sneeze. 

New Air Quality targets for Shanghai

Rather than resting on its laurels, in January 2017 the Shanghai government announced a new target for average annual PM2.5 density to be reduced to 42 ug/m3 by 2020. Unfortunately, this new goal is not very ambitious as it is less than 7% lower than the 2016 average, and could actually already be achieved in 2017.

A bolder target was issued in September 2017 when the city authorities announced a new master plan calling for the annual average density of PM2.5 to fall to about 20 ug/m3 by 2040, which would finally approach the World Health Organization (WHO) safe air quality standard.

New Initiatives

Other recent initiatives related to Shanghai Smog include:

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