Air pollution levels in most of China's cities fell during the first half of 2015, Greenpeace said, most notably for measurements of extremely toxic PM2.5
Levels of PM2.5, the particulate matter deemed most harmful to human health, fell by an average of 16% in most of China's cities in the first half of this year, Greenpeace said in a report released today.
Using data from China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the report shows an overall increase in air quality in 358 cities compared with the January to June period in 2014.
Beijing, neighbouring Hebei, and Henan, were found to have the worst levels of particulate pollution, while Yunnan, Tibet and Hainan came out best. PM2.5 levels in Beijing and Guangzhou have fallen but Shanghai saw a 1.6% increase.
The data shows PM2.5 levels in Beijing for the first six months of 2015 fell 15.2% year-on-year. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area as a whole experienced a fall of 22%; the Yangtze delta a 16% reduction; and the Pearl River delta 20.5%. The average fall across 74 major cities was 17.1%.
Gan Zhongxue, head of a special task force set up to tackle PM2.5 pollution, told media that efforts to clean up China’s air were starting to show results. Incidences of heavy pollution are now less frequent, less intense and shorter, he said.
Hao Jiming, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert on atmospheric pollution, said the improvement is down to tough law enforcement and anti-pollution policies taking effect.
Energy use is becoming cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable, he added. Coal consumption, which fell in 2014, has become an important indicator of success in dealing with air pollution.
Analysis from the MEP says vehicles were the single biggest source of pollution in the capital, while 30% of air pollution in Tianjin comes from dust, and in Shijiazhuang, coal smoke is the main culprit.
In Nanjing, 27.4% of air pollution is due to coal-burning; in Shanghai, cars, trucks and other vehicles are the primary source of pollution, and in Guangzhou industry is the biggest source.
From January 1 this year, all 338 of China’s cities at prefecture level or above have monitored levels of six atmospheric pollutants, including PM2.5 – meaning nationwide coverage is a year ahead of target.
As part of its action plan on tackling air pollution, the central government allocated 11.5 billion yuan (US$1.85 billion) to deal with major air pollution issues in key regions for 2015 following the allocation of almost 15 billion yuan (US$2.42 billion) combined for the years 2013 and 2014.
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Dong Liansai, told chinadialogue that new laws and regulations were delivering results in China’s self-declared “war on pollution”, with stricter emissions standards and tougher penalties for non-compliance encouraging companies to emit less.
Dong also attributed the improvement in air quality to a sustained fall in coal consumption. In the chemicals, power generation, metallurgy and construction sectors coal use fell by 5% year-on-year in the first five months of 2015. Since July last year, Beijing has shut down the majority of its coal-burning power plants.
Many experts warn that these early wins do not justify optimism.
“Improvements get much tougher as you go on,” said Zhu Jianping, deputy at the MEP’s Department of Environmental Monitoring. He said that the outlook for air pollution in China remains grave: levels of pollutants remain high and there could yet be major setbacks.
Yang Jintian, deputy chief engineer at the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, said three major challenges lie ahead.
Polluting and energy-hungry industries still make up too large a part of the economy, he said, adding that coal will remain China’s primary source of energy in the long term, and that no easy way to stem an increase in the number of vehicles on China’s roads has been found.
According to Tsinghua's Hao Jiming, the key to reducing air pollution is cutting emissions of key pollutants by 30-50%. In cases such as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and Yangtze delta, bringing air quality up to standard may require cuts of 50-60%, or maybe even more than 70%.