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China’s war against air pollution

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo: © Oak Foundation

China’s earlier Air Pollution Action Plan (the Plan), released in September 2013, may have been one the most influential environmental policies of the past years. This plan has helped guide China to make significant improvements to air quality, by cutting PM2.5 (hazardous fine particles measuring 2.5 microns or smaller) concentrations to less than 60 micrograms per cubic meter as targets for key regions.

For example, the Plan stipulates that Beijing must reduce the annual average PM2.5 level from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60 within five years. To this end, Beijing closed its coal-fired powerplants and replaced them with natural gas instead of heating systems in the city and surrounding areas. While these measures were costly, they enabled the city to achieve an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³ – an incredible drop of 35 per cent from 2012 to 2017.

Other cities and provinces followed suit. At the end of 2017, China’s three biggest city clusters (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Pearl and Yangtze deltas) all beat their targets.

Nevertheless, many cities in China are yet to reach the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended annual average of PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. As of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

The five-year initial successes triggered the public, the government and environmentalists to continue their efforts for “bluer skies”. The new 2018-2020 three-year Air Pollution Action Plan (the new Plan) for “Winning the Blue Sky War” has wider scope and safer targets set by the government.

The new Plan matches the PM2.5 target published in 2016 as part of the 13th five-year plan for environmental protection. This mandate’s falls of at least 18 per cent in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline by 2020 in cities of prefectural or higher level, and where standards have not already been fully met.

The new Plan significantly expands the scope of PM2.5 restrictions, with cities and places previously not covered now under pressure to tackle air pollution. The new Plan includes regions of: Jing-Jin-Ji, which is 25 times the size of London with a population of 130 million; Feng WeiPlain; and the Yangtze Delta region, with a population of more than 120 million and a GDP of approximately USD 1.5 trillion.

The new Plan also takes more detailed measures on the sources of pollution and structural issues, including transformative transitions in energy, industry and transportation.

To build an integrated system for prevention and control of air pollution, China continues to: enhance economic incentives and environmental standards; and strengthen supervision. Innovation-driven technology has played an important role. For example, China leads the world in electric vehicles (EV) and plays a remarkable role in ongoing EV innovation. Shenzhen has more electric buses (over 16,000) than any other city in the world. EVs are one of the options and solutions to address air pollution, and China is accelerating that through the government’s bold commitment and industry’s revolution.

Written by Dan Cao, Climate Change programme officer, Environment Programme.