How China is Winning Its Battle Against Air Pollution

The country’s national air pollution action plans have brought significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.

China lifted millions out of poverty like no other country on the planet did. The price of that economic progress is its smog-choked air that caused a public health crisis killing more than 1.1 million people every year. It also proved costly for the nation as the economy suffered an annual loss of $37bn due to pollution-induced crop failure. 

After Beijing’s “airpocalypse” sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration among citizens, China set out to clean up the air quality of its cities.  The government prohibited new coal-fired power plants and shut down a number of old plants in the most polluted regions including city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas. Large cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou restricted the number of cars on the road and started introducing all-electric bus fleets. The country reduced its iron-and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.  

The government also introduced aggressive afforestation and reforestation programmes like the great green wall and planting more than 35bn trees across 12 Chinese provinces. With investments of over $100bn in such programmes, China’s forestry expenditure per hectare exceeded that of the US and Europe and became three times higher than the global average.

The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.

But even so, no cities reached the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. And as of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.

In 2018, China introduced Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War as part of the second phase.

While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard–an average of 35µg/m³.

The previous plan had not addressed a primary pollutant that made the air deadly in many cities: ground-level ozone–highly irritating gas created by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) reacting with nitrogen oxides released from vehicles. Although ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth by blocking solar radiation, it is extremely toxic in the troposphere and could cause asthma and respiratory tract infections among residents. The new action plan focuses more on ozone pollution as it added targets for both VOCs and nitrogen oxides; emissions reductions of 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020.

Air pollution levels in major Chinese cities at the turn of this century were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890. But China cleaned up its air twice as fast as the United Kingdom did after the Great Smog of postwar London killed 8000 people.

Recent research suggests that China’s fight against pollution has already laid the foundation for extraordinary gains in the country’s life expectancy. The citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persisted.

Written by Felix Leung, a Postdoctoral Researcher working on modelling the impact of climate change and air pollution on crop productivity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.