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Report: Air quality significantly improved in 2014, August 3, 2015 Adjust font size:

How has China’s air quality changed in 2014? A look across China after the start of Ten Measures of Air

The Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC), China’s thinktank platform with a mission to improve China’s air quality, released the China Air Quality Management Assessment Report (2015) on Friday. The Report analyzed data from 30 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions across China, and found significant air quality improvements in air quality in Shanxi, Shandong and Shanghai, while the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region still have much room for progress.

China’s air quality has been dire over the past few years. In 2013, China State Council issued the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan 2013-2017 (also referred to as the “Ten Measures of Air,”) setting a new precedent for governmental efforts tackling air pollution management. One year after the action plan’s enactment, what have China’s provinces and cities done to meet these requirements?

To answer this question, the Report contains data from 30 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions (hereinafter will be referred to as “provinces”), with the exception of Tibet (due to data availability). According to the report, few provinces met targets for annual average PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations; however, some made significant progress on pollutant emission control. Shanxi, Shandong and Shanghai achieved outstanding improvements in overall air quality and have exceeded their annual quotas.

The Secretariat for Clean Air Alliance of China, known as the Innovation Center for Clean-air Solutions, used publicly available environmental data to analyze changes in regional air quality management, emission reductions and co-control (greenhouse gases emission reduction) efforts, as well as air quality management progress, across the nation. The Report hopes to highlight key regional performance differences and help governments overcome struggles to meet targets.

Air Quality Assessment

Based on the analysis of PM2.5 data, the three best performing cities were Shanxi, Shandong and Shanghai, with PM2.5 concentration decreasing by 16.7%, 16.3% and 16.1%, respectively. Pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region (also known as the Jing-Jin-Ji Region) and its surrounding regions like Henan, merged to create one large block of severe pollution that deserves increased attention and treatment.

PM10 data analysis reveals that Hainan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Heilongjiang and Guangxi led the nation with meeting PM10 targets. Despite their progress, ten provinces in the central and northeastern regions actually increased PM10 concentrations when compared to 2013 data.

All provinces except for Beijing have met O3 targets and all except five provinces have met NO2 targets, with Beijing and Tianjin being the most severe non-compliant cities. When looking at annual SO2 averages, all provinces have met targets, but during winter heating seasons, concentrations in China’s northern area regularly exceeded upper limits.

Reducing pollutant emissions

Emissions of SO2 and NOx were greatly reduced in 2014 and Mercury emissions also received increased public attention. Certain air emission reduction measures, such as setting limits on coal burning and eliminating non-compliant vehicles, have provided significant co-benefits such as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All these efforts contribute to achieving China’s negative growth in coal consumption in 2014 over the past 15 years (reduced by 2.9% compared with 2013 ).

Air quality management

With the release of China’s New Environmental Protection Law in May 2014, various regions have strengthened air quality regulations and standards; air quality monitoring systems have been built across the country, and the targets have been achieved one year in advance; pollution fees have increased and administrative penalties were more severe. Beijing and Tianjin are playing leader roles in these efforts. Despite the improvements, provinces across China still lacked data transparency and earned an average transparency score of 59.5%. For example, there is little access for public to track historical air quality monitoring data, and evaluation results of local air quality action plans were unavailable to the public. Tianjin was the exception and led the country in transparency and data accessibility.

Upcoming challenges and opportunities

China’s air quality challenges mostly lie in treating existing pollutants, reducing dependency on pollution-intensive heavy industries, meeting growing energy demands and controlling vehicle growth rate and usage.

The Jing-Jing-Ji Region and its surrounding areas, Henan, Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Yangtze River Delta and other areas with heavy pollution all have relatively less “natural self-clean capacities”. Shandong, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Hebei, Ningxia, Qinghai and Jiangsu have economies that are strongly based off of secondary pollution-intensified industries, which make up more than 60% of their GDP. Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Hebei, Ningxia, Guizhou, Anhui, Hebei, and Shaanxi use more than 80% of coal for primary consumption. Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang lead in coal consumption per capita, ranking 1st, 3rd and 8th, respectively, which makes Yangtze river delta a coal use intensified region.

In 2014, as a city successfully attained the national air quality standards, Shenzhen topped the list in overall air quality among China’s megacities (with population over 10 million). We believe that more cities will follow in its footsteps.