China’s poor air quality is not exactly news – ever since it became the “world’s factory”, its air pollution from its vast production and factories has manifested in ways that greatly affect Chinese citizens and their quality of life. Thus, the national government has been working hard to battle air pollution in China. But has its efforts been effective?

According to the World Bank, in 2014, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (Jing-Jin-Ji) region experienced particularly severe air pollution, with an annual average fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – particles with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and about 30 times smaller than a single hair – concentration reaching up to 93 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), which far exceeded both China’s national standard and the standard advised by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2015, the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP) estimated that emissions of PM2.5, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NO), both of which come mostly from vehicles and factory plants through fuel-burning, substantially exceeded the cities’ environmental absorptive capacity by 80%, 50%, and 70% respectively.

In fact, the Global Burden of Disease Study from Lancelet estimated that outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40% of the global total. It means that China’s toll from pollution led to the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

The severe air pollution in China can mostly be attributed to its economic boom since 1979, when China’s economic reforms began. This economic boom lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty, and its national real GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10% the last four decades. From it, the number of factories – especially coal-burning factories – and private vehicles all increase drastically as well, resulting in the release of high amounts of various air pollutants. In fact, roughly 48% of Chinese CO2 emissions are from the industrial sector, with 40% from the power sector and 8% from the transport sector.

These gases worsen China’s already poor air quality, and with an ever-increasing population, the demand for electricity only grows with no respite, leading to even more coal-burning and worse air quality. 

Air Pollution Control in the Five Year Plan

China’s Five-Year Plan (FYP) is one of the country’s most important policy blueprints. Drawn up every five years since 1953, it sets medium-term goals for China’s social and economic development and is the barometer against which progress is measured. Environmental protection was first written into China’s fifth FYP in 1975, in which China vowed to control environmental pollution within five years and solve overall environmental pollution within ten years. However, due to an underestimation of the complexity of environmental pollution and the arduousness of pollution control, this goal was not achieved, and the targets set in the following FYPs also ended in failure.

Still, environmental policies continue to be a main concern for China. In the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) adopted in 2016, China aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 18% by 2020 to keep in line with China’s pledge of reducing total carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% from 2005 levels and to carbon peak by 2030 at the COP21 conference in Paris. China also planned to cap total energy consumption at 5 billion metric tons of standard coal equivalent by 2020, and to reduce energy consumption per GDP by 15% by 2020. It should be noted that 12th FYP in 2011-2015 set the aim at 16%, but a 18.2% reduction was actually achieved at last, making this new target rather optimistic as well.

The transportation measures and goals set in the 13th FYP contribute to its air pollution targets as well, and were essential in “maintaining acceptable air quality levels in major cities for 80% of days by the end of 2020”. The FYP also aimed to expand the electric vehicle market by constructing dedicated parking lots and charging facilities, and removing almost 4 million high-emission vehicles from roads. The FYP remained in support of adopting low-emission “new energy vehicles“ through subsidies to automakers and local governments to purchase green fleets, and tax breaks and free registration for consumers.

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Are These Policies Effective?

The 13th FYP is now complete with all the set goals having been met and even exceeded. And because of that, the air quality in China has indeed improved. Beijing, the Chinese capital that used to be smog-hazed during wintertime, saw no heavily-polluted skies from autumn to December in 2020. Good air in 2020 also persisted for a record of 40-plus days compared with all previous autumns and winters. 

According to the UN Environment Programme, PM2.5 in Beijing between 2013 and 2017 also fell by 35% and by 25% in surrounding regions. According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Chinese cities that failed to meet the national standards for average PM2.5 density saw the indicator decline by 23.1% between 2015 and 2019, while days with good air accounted for 82% of the year in 337 major cities, beating the original 80 % target set in the plan. In 2020, the average PM2.5 density further shrank by 8.8% year on year to 31 micrograms per cubic meter, below the benchmark set by the WHO of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. It’s clear that the air pollution control policies have been markedly successful.

air pollution in China Average annual PM2.5 air pollution levels in Beijing, China between 2010 and 2020

Air Pollution Control in the Next Five Years

Despite its successes, air quality control will remain as one of the top in the agenda in China, focusing specifically on peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality. Energy intensity, carbon emission intensity reduction, primary use of non-fossil fuel energy targets are also set to continue improving national air quality.

What’s more, China has placed a very strong emphasis on clean energy such as wind and solar energy. The latest plan has set out a new blueprint involving a variety of onshore clean energy technologies, investment in the transmission grid and nuclear, as well as offshore wind in the coastal region. 

According to the National Energy Administration (NEA), in the first half of 2021, the country has already raised its renewable energy power generation capacity from 930 gigawatts (GW) to 971 from 2020 levels, indicating a 4% increase. This figure also includes 281GW of onshore wind power, 11.13GW of offshore wind power, 268GW solar power, and 378GW hydropower. Should China’s trend and efforts continue, the country might just be able to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.