China releases 2020 action plan for air pollution

(Eco Business, 10 Jul 2018) China has implemented drastic and often costly and controversial measures to curb air pollution in recent years, like shutting down coal-fired power stations in Beijing. Can the country’s new action plan sustain its initial success?

China’s new plan for tackling air pollution (published on July 3) is more detailed and covers more cities than the one which expired at the end of 2017—but it does not set tougher targets than those already in place.

The expiring action plan

The earlier Air Pollution Action Plan, released in September 2013, may have been China’s most influential environmental policy of the past five years. It helped China to make significant improvements to air quality by setting PM2.5 targets for key regions, requiring significant reductions between 2013 and 2017—of 15 per cent in the Pearl River Delta, and of 33 per cent in Beijing.

In Beijing this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. To do so, Beijing closed its coal-fired power stations, and banned people in surrounding areas from burning coal for heat. These measures were costly and controversial, but they enabled the city to achieve an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³—a drop of 35 per cent.

Other cities and provinces also had to act. In the end, China’s three biggest city clusters (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, and the Pearl and Yangtze deltas) all beat their targets.

But even so, no Chinese city yet reaches 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.

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Eco Business, 10 Jul 2018: China releases 2020 action plan for air pollution