Caixin
Jan 16, 2020 07:32 PM

Smog Clears Around Beijing and Shanghai, But Haze Lingers Over Much of China

Checkered air quality figures indicate that Chinese industry has been relocating winter production to the country’s interior in order to avoid seasonal restrictions on factory emissions in high-priority areas.
Checkered air quality figures indicate that Chinese industry has been relocating winter production to the country’s interior in order to avoid seasonal restrictions on factory emissions in high-priority areas.

The regions around Beijing and Shanghai have witnessed dramatic improvements in air quality so far this winter but progress has slowed and even reversed in many other parts of China, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a global environmental research organization.

An uptick in coal and oil consumption coupled with rising industrial output drove pollution increases outside the greater Beijing and Shanghai regions, which the government considers priority areas for pollution reduction. In particular, some southern and northeastern provinces saw significant spikes in levels of PM2.5, ultrafine particles that can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and damage organs in the body.

The study comes as China moves into the final year of a five-year plan that has driven major improvements to air quality despite a recent economic slowdown that has seemingly prompted a return to tried-and-tested but highly polluting industries. The country’s coal use rose by around 3% last year, the first significant increase since it declared “war” on air pollution back in 2013.

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“As coal and oil consumption have increased in the past two years, progress on air quality has relied entirely on better filters and moving industrial production away from priority areas. Continued improvements require accelerating the clean-energy transition,” said CREA lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta.

Researchers used real-time air quality data reported on Chinese government websites to measure year-on-year changes in pollution levels from October through December, the first three months of China’s official winter season.

They found that PM2.5 levels in Beijing plummeted by around 18% year on year, while levels of other pollutants like PM10, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide also fell. Shanghai itself showed a slight rise in pollution levels, but other parts of the priority region around it largely remained on a downward trajectory.

Nationwide, however, PM2.5 levels improved at the slowest rate since 2013. Some provinces even reported dramatic increases in the toxic pollutant, with levels rising about 24% in East China’s Fujian province, 18% in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, and 18% in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

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A further priority region for air quality around the northwestern city of Xi’an is on track to miss its pollution reduction targets for the current winter season, the report said.

The study also said the checkered air quality figures indicate that Chinese industry has been relocating winter production to the country’s interior in order to avoid seasonal restrictions on factory emissions in high-priority areas.

Despite China’s stuttering performance in 2019, the country’s air quality has rapidly improved over the last decade, driven to a large extent by ambitious PM2.5 reduction targets in the government’s current five-year plan, which runs until the end of 2020. But although China has gotten to grips with high-profile pollutants like PM2.5 and sulfur dioxide, recent years have seen the emergence of new threats to air quality and human health.

Two of those are ground-level ozone and nitrogen dioxide, the report says. The former, a highly reactive gas that damages cells in the lungs, is on the rise in Chinese cities as PM2.5 readings fall. The latter also irritates the lungs and is linked to a number of chronic ailments. Both substances are linked to thousands of premature deaths each year.

“For much of the country, ozone and nitrogen dioxide have emerged as the new battlegrounds on which the battle for blue skies must be fought,” Myllyvirta said. “Addressing regional disparities in progress and targeting improvements in nitrogen dioxide and ozone should be focus areas for the next round of air pollution policies in the coming five-year plan period.”

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (matthewwalsh@caixin.com) and editor Joshua Dummer (joshuadummer@caixin.com)

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