Feb 27, 2012 06:05 PM

China Goes to War on PM2.5


In 2011, public calls for the government to use a more stringent air quality standard grew louder.

Ultimately, the government was swayed, and it included PM2.5 – small particulate matter of 2.5 microns in diameter or less that are easily absorbed into the lungs – in the latest National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Each provincial capital and municipality will begin monitoring PM2.5 in 2012.

However, the new standard reveals a grim picture of China's air quality. Several scholars point out that if China's cities publish PM2.5 data now, 80 percent would not meet urban air quality standards.

A Beijing municipal government plan announced in February has the capital reaching the national standard of annual average PM2.5 concentrations of 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2030 at the earliest. This means Beijing residents will need to wait at least 18 years to breath air that meets national standards. Meanwhile, the plan provides that Beijing's PM2.5 concentration will reach 60 micrograms per cubic meter by 2015 and 50 micrograms per cubic meter by 2020.

China's environmental officials do not say what a PM2.5 concentration of 35 micrograms per cubic meter means or what risk it poses to people's health. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index, which uses PM2.5 as its standard, says a reading of 0-50 means "good" air quality.

Du Shaozhong, who recently retired as deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, said the city needed a miracle to meet the air quality standard in 18 years. Beijing has already taken extraordinary measures to improve air quality over the past decade, he says, and further improvement will be even more difficult.

Feng Yinchang, a pollution expert at Nankai University in Tianjin, said air pollution has actually improved in recent years. "This is not the worst period in history for air quality in China's cities," he said. Based on his calculations, the worst period was the years 1998 to 2000.

There are four million more motor vehicles in Beijing now than in 1998, and exhaust pollution has grown ten times. Since then, Beijing's area has grown and its population has increased from some 12 million people to more than 20 million. "Existing pollution sources have been treated, but new pollution sources have been added incrementally," Feng said.

Over the past decade, Beijing has employed more than 200 measures to control air pollution, Du said. The effectiveness of these steps has been significant, but, he laments, during this period "Beijing's air has never met standards."

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