Fleet of electric buses at 2008 Beijing Olympic

Anti-air pollution measures in China have included tighter factory and vehicle controls. Cities including Shanghai and Beijing restrict car ownership. The authorities have also taken positive steps on the release of environmental data to the public. Policies encourage desulfurization and other filtering technology in power plants. China has shut down the dirtiest factories and toughened anti-pollution laws Activists, lawyers and journalists have to some degree been given a green light by the government to raise public awareness about pollution and go after polluters. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, February 4, 2011; Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, Slowly those skies are clearing a little, at least in places like Beijing and Shanghai, as heavy industry is modernized or moved out of town. And the government has shut down many of the smallest and filthiest coal-fired power plants. Indeed, the country now leads the world in building what engineers call supercritical power stations, which produce far less smog than many of the hulking units still online in the U.S. Presumably China will get steadily cleaner as it gets richer — that's been the story elsewhere.” But — and it's a crucial but — you can clean the air without really cleaning the air. The most efficient coal-fired power plants may not pour as much particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, but they still produce enormous quantities of carbon dioxide.”

In Beijing and other cities electric lines have been brought to local neighborhood and people there have been encouraged to switch from coal-briquette-heated stoves to electric heaters. To make the change easier to accept the government covers two thirds of the cost of the heaters. One Beijing resident told the Times of London he favored the change, saying, “They say it is may be a little more expensive overall than coal, but it is a price I don’t mind paying to get our blue skies back.” Another solution is raising energy prices. Electricity prices in China are half of those in developed countries. A U.N. energy expert told the New York Times, "Liberalizing energy prices would be the single most effective policy to promote energy efficiency.”

In 2012, Keith Bradsher wrote in New York Times: “The municipal government of Guangzhou, a sprawling metropolis that is one of China’s biggest auto manufacturing centers, introduced license plate auctions and lotteries in 2012 that will roughly halve the number of new cars on the streets. Nanjing and Hangzhou in east-central China are moving to require cleaner gas and diesel. Cities near the coast, from Dongguan and Shenzhen in southeastern China to Wuxi and Suzhou in the middle and Beijing in the north, are pushing out polluting factories. And Xi’an and Urumqi in northwestern China are banning and scrapping cars built before 2005, when automotive emissions rules were less stringent. But the national government in Beijing is pushing back against further car restrictions because of worries about the huge auto industry. Polluting factories being pushed out of increasingly affluent cities in southeastern China are being turned away by poorer cities in western and northern China unless they install costly, extensive equipment to control emissions, said Stanley Lau, the deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Industries, a trade group representing manufacturers that employ nearly 10 million workers in mainland China. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, September 4, 2012]

Many Chinese wear face masks as protection against air pollution. But one question is do they work. In 2014, only nine out of 37 types tested by the China Consumers Association met required standards in terms of filtering particulate matter and enabling easy breathing. Reuters reported: The most expensive, priced at 199 yuan ($32.15), was no better than one of the cheapest, a disposable mask that costs 1 yuan, the association said in a report on the tests. "The vast majority of face masks on the market give no protection against PM2.5, even if the manufacturers claim they do," said Lei Limin, vice chairman of the China Textile Commerce Association, referring to the small particulates that pose the greatest risk to human health because they easily pass into the lungs. “Face masks in China have traditionally been categorized as personal protective equipment mainly used for medical or industrial purposes. The country has no quality standards for face masks for personal use, despite the surge in demand. [Source: Grace Li, Reuters, March 25, 2014]

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Greenpeace East Asia ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; International Fund for China’s Environment .

Successes Combating Air Pollution in China

The number of large particulates of up to 10 micrometers. has dropped as a result of reforestation programs that lessen the dust storms that blew in from deserts. The Chinese have also been successful in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by limiting coal heating and imposing stricter emissions standards. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2011]

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of moderate to heavily polluted cities fell from 115 to 68. Pollution reducing measures taken in Benxi proved to be successful enough for the city to reappear in satellite imagery The air pollution in Shanghai has been reduced somewhat as a result of the collapse of the textile industry there, the moving of large factories outside the city and planting lots of trees. The mayor of Shanghai has suggested adding a surcharge on electric bills to pay for environmental improvements.

Chinese statistics indicate that urban air quality has improved over the past decade as cities have relocated factories, reduced coal burning and adopted stricter vehicle emission standards, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. The World Bank’s analysis of the government’s data found that average concentrations of particulates measuring 10 microns or less — a group that includes both fine and coarser particulates — fell 31 percent from 2003 to 2009 in 113 major cities.

From 2005 to 2009, China cut its sulfur dioxide emissions by between 22 million and 25.5 million tons. But perhaps the best weapon against air pollution is mother nature. Sharp northern winds have helped Beijing to 2011 with a record stretch of "blue sky" days. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, February 4, 2011]

The Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant was one of the Beijing worst polluters until it was relocated in 2006. At it peak it employed 10,000 workers and powered most of the city’s stoves and heating system. Chinese leaders were proud of the fact that smoke for the factory’s six chimneys never stopped in its 47-year history. After it was moved to Tangshan people that used to live near it in Beijing said it was the first time they could hang laundry outside without worrying about their clothes getting covered with black coal dust.

Efforts by the Chinese Government to Curb Air Pollution

even license plates
In its 13th Five-Year Plan, announced in 2016, the Chinese government’s goal for 2020 was for the air in all major cities to meet “good” or “excellent” standards — meaning air quality index readings of less than 100 — 80 percent of the time. Around that time the Beijing municipal government pledged to reduce PM2.5 concentrations in the city’s air 25 percent in 2017 compared with levels for 2012. [Source: Karoline Kan, Sinosphere, New York Times, January 6, 2017]

In 2013 the central government said it would invest $280 billion in the coming years in efforts to control air pollution while its leaders pledged to take tougher action. Saying that the country will not sacrifice the environment for short-term economic gains, President Xi Jinping has vowed to punish officials who approve projects that cause serious pollution. Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, During the airpoclapyse wave of air pollution in 2013, “China’s government experimented with various emergency measures, curtailing the use of official cars and ordering factories and construction sites to close. In June, China’s State Council, or Cabinet, announced a package of 10 anti-pollution measures, including forcing heavy-polluting industries such as steel and petrochemicals to release environmental data to the public, gradually comply with international emission limits and replace outdated technologies. But heavy polluters are being asked only to reduce their emissions for each unit of economic output by 30 percent by the end of 2017; critics say if economic growth continues to exceed 7 percent annually, total decreases in pollution will be small.[Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2013; Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2013]

In June 2013, China's Cabinet announced measures to curb air pollution. The broad measures approved by the State Council include putting strict controls in place for industries that produce large amounts of waste and pollution, but it will likely be up to local governments to work out the details. In a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, the State Council approved 10 "tough measures to accomplish tough tasks," the council said. These include a target to reduce pollution emissions by at least 30 percent in heavy-polluting industries by the end of 2017. [Source: Associated Press, June 15, 2013]

In September 2013, The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The plan, released by the State Council, , filled in a broad outline that the government had issued in 2013. . It represented the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth. Under the plan, concentrations of fine particulate matter must be reduced by 25 percent in the Beijing-Tianjian-Hebei area in the north, 20 percent in the Yangtze River Delta in the east and 15 percent in the Pearl River Delta in the south, compared with 2012 levels. All other cities must reduce the levels of larger particulate matter, known as PM 10, by 10 percent. It is unclear why the plan calls for a looser standard for other cities, since the fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, is considered deadlier than PM 10 because it can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.The plan said Beijing must also bring its average concentration of PM 2.5 down to 60 micrograms per cubic meter or less. That would be two and a half times the recommended exposure limit set by the World Health Organization. [Source: Edward Wong. New York Times, September 12, 2013 ***]

Some of the plan’s critics said they were disappointed that there were no specific limits on coal consumption by region. The plan allows local governments to set those limits on their own. “Instead of setting a goal to reduce coal burning for each province, the action plan gives each province the power to set goals for themselves, which leads to the goals being very conservative,” said Huang Wei, who works on climate and energy advocacy at Greenpeace East Asia.

But "For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate. The government has introduced new fuel standards only to have them blocked or ignored by state-owned oil and power companies to save on costs. Chinese leaders have produced an impressive flurry of policies on air pollution, but regulators still suffer from insufficient authority; rapid economic growth means that a steady stream of pollution sources come on line every day; and vested business interests are sure to scream bloody murder every step of the way,” Alex L. Wang, a scholar of Chinese environmental policy and a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times. “It’s one thing to have a strategy, and another to execute it well,” he added. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, October 24, 2013]

Chinese Laws and Regulation on Air Pollution

Since the initial passage of the framework Environmental Protection Law in 1979, China has adopted many laws, regulations, and standards addressing environmental protection. The Law on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, the primary law dealing with air pollution, provides comprehensive measures on air pollution prevention and control Implementation of the environmental protection laws used to be weak, but has becoming increasingly stronger over the past few decades as the severity of air pollution and the health problems associated with it have increased. [Source: Laney Zhang, Foreign Law Specialist, Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Reports, June 2018 ]

After the first passage of the Environmental Protection Law, China passed approximately thirty special laws regulating various areas of environmental protection, approximately ninety administrative regulations, and many more standards. Among them, the Law on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution (Air Law) is the primary law dealing with air pollution, providing comprehensive measures of air pollution prevention and control.

The Air Law was first adopted in 1987 and has been revised several times since then, including a major revision in 2015 that took effect on January 1, 2016. The revised Air Law sets a specific goal of improving air quality and emphasizes the control of air pollution caused by coal burning, industrial production, motor vehicles and vessels, dust, and agricultural activities. It calls for comprehensive measures to be taken to restrict atmospheric pollutants and greenhouse gases, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and ammonia.

According to the Environmental Protection Law and the Air Law, the environmental protection agency under the State Council is tasked with formulating national environmental quality standards, including air quality standards. Provincial governments may establish local standards on items not covered in the national standards and set stricter limits on items covered by the national standards. Regions that have not met the national standards must formulate an attainment plan showing how they will meet the standards by a certain time. For regions that exceed national total emissions targets of key air pollutants or could not achieve the improvement targets of ambient air quality set by the state, the local government leaders will be “interviewed” by the central or provincial environmental protection authorities and new projects in that region will be prohibited from undergoing required environmental impact assessments.

Construction of new industrial facilities that may affect the atmospheric environment must be preceded by environmental impact assessments, and standards for the emission of atmospheric pollutants and the total emission control requirements for key atmospheric pollutants must be met. Polluting entities must also obtain a pollutant discharge permit for industrial emissions or the emission of specified hazardous and toxic atmospheric pollutants. Effective January 1, 2018, a newly designed environmental protection tax replaced the pollution discharge fee. The tax applies to specified air pollutants, not including carbon dioxide.

Pollutants discharged by motor vehicles and vessels as well as non-road mobile machinery must not exceed the stipulated emission standards. China has been implementing vehicle emissions standards that mainly follow the EU standards. The China 5 standard for light-duty vehicles is similar to the Euro 5 standard with some deviations. National standards for fuel consumption limits have been established for various types of vehicles. The current Phase IV standards for passenger cars, which took effect on January 1, 2016, set a fleet average target of 5.0 L/100 kilometers for new vehicles sold in 2020. China has created a New Energy Vehicle (NEV) credit system under which passenger car manufacturers will be required to earn NEV credits starting in 2019. The excess NEV credits, if any, may be used to offset an automaker’s negative corporate average fuel consumption (CAFC) points that occurred by exceeding the CAFC target set by the state.

Fighting Air Pollution in Beijing

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ China's smog crisis is not unlike those experienced in London and Los Angeles in the 1950s. Public outcry ultimately led to cleaner air and tougher environmental regulations. To tackle air pollution Beijing has introduced environmental standards for buildings, planted trees, set aside more green areas and built subways and improved mass transportation. Vehicle emissions standards have been raised to European levels, millions of homes have converted from coal to gas and dozens of high-polluting factories have been relocated or temporarily shut.

Dirty old steel factories are being upgraded or relocated. Particularly dirty ones have been ordered to shut down even though they employ thousands of people. To reduce smog, the low chimneys of small thermal power generators are being replaced by the towering smokestacks of more efficient “supercritical” plants. Although China is building one a new coal-fired plant each week, most of them are more efficient than similar facilities in the United States and Britain. They are also better equipped to remove sulphur dioxide and other noxious gases. But almost none of them remove carbon dioxide. The result is that local air pollution is finally easing in many places but emissions of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere are increasing. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

In October 2013, officials in Beijing announced a series of emergency measures aimed at tackling the city’s air pollution problem, including mandatory factory closures and bans on cars entering the city on days when pollution levels are particularly high. Paul Armstrong and Feng Ke of CNN reported: “The city's Heavy Air Pollution Contingency Plan stipulates that when there is "serious pollution for three consecutive days," a warning system comprising of blue, yellow, orange and red — the most serious — alerts will be activated. Kindergartens, primary and middle schools will then have to stop classes, while 80 percent of government-owned cars must be taken off the roads. Private cars will only be allowed to enter the city on alternate days according to ballot system of the numbers on their registration plates. All freight vehicles and those transporting material for construction sites will be barred from the roads when the red alert is issued, while more watering carts and sprinkler trucks will take to the roads, the state-run China Daily reported. Factories in the city emitting pollutants will be required to cut their emissions or shut down completely when the orange warning signal is hoisted, while construction sites must halt excavation and demolition operations. Other measures include a ban on barbeques and fireworks on heavily polluted days. [Source: Paul Armstrong and Feng Ke, CNN, October 23, 2013]

“While the announcement has been broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction, doubt remains about its long-term effectiveness. "The new emergency measures show the government's determination to tackle the air pollution in Beijing, especially those regulations that limit car use and close schools and kindergartens on heavily polluted days. It shows that the authority has really paid attention to those vulnerable groups," Huang Wei, a spokesman for Greenpeace East Asia, told CNN. "But what is problematic is that those emergency measures are only targeted to those polluted days. It is rather a remedial measure than a preventative measure, and just to repair won't help the issue in the long run.

In 2017, Beijing city announced the creation of a new environmental police squad to root out illegal burning in the city. According to Associated Press: Beijing's mayor said that the force would target open-air barbecues, garbage incineration and the burning of wood and other biomass. He also announced several other measures, including a target of cutting the use of coal by 30 percent in 2017, and shutting down 500 higher-polluting factories and upgrading 2,500 more. About 300,000 high-pollution vehicles will also be restricted from entering the capital starting In February 2017. [Source: Nomaan Merchant, Associated Press, January 8, 2017]

20080317-pollution-towers julie chao.jpg
Pollution towers

Cleaning Up Coal-Related Pollution in China

The primary solution to China’s air problem is coming up with clean energy sources and reducing reliance on coal. According to a U.N. report, "Large-scale adoption of low-carbon energy sources such as a hydro, nuclear, gas, biomass, solar and wind technologies could displace substantial quantity of coal, particularly for electric generation.” The production of coal-fired plants has slowed to some degree. They are no longer being produced at the rate of one a week as they once were.

Measures taken by China to reduce pollution caused by the burning of coal include banning the use of coal for heating and cooking in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai; moving large coal-fired plants out of urban areas and replacing them with plants that burn natural gas; tightening the energy efficiency of new buildings. Some cities, including Beijing, have banned coal burning stoves and require people to cook with cleaner-burning fuels.

Policies to decrease emissions from coal-fried plants include installing desulfering equipment, monitoring emission levels, providing incentives to scrub emissions and closing down small inefficient plants and replacing them with more efficient, large, modern plants. Emissions could be reduced by as much as two thirds by following these measures, but are ignored because they are expensive. Often it is easier, cheaper and more energy-efficient to build new plants from scratch than replace existing ones.

China could use 50 percent less coal simply by installing energy-efficient technology. A new plant in Zouxian, the second biggest coal-fired plant in China, produces 1 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 1 million homes and burns 10 million tons of coal but produces less pollution than plants a tenth of its size thanks to new generators that are among the most efficient in the world. Made withe Japanese company Hitachi, the generators burn powdered fuel at such high temperatures (600̊C) water turns to steam without boiling, saving energy and carbon emissions. The technology is expensive. It can cost almost $1 billion to supply generators to a single plant.

The Japanese have provided power plants in Shaaxi with scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. These and other measures have reportedly reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for 23 million tons in 1995 to 19 million tons in 2004. In 1994, only one Chinese power plant had desulfurization equipment. Now many have it and Chinese firms can produce their own desulfurization equipment at 30 percent the cost of other countries. Many think that China can also make advances with “ultra-supercritical” generators and significantly bring the costs of that technology down.

Another way that China could reduce its air pollution is to convert a portion of its coal reserves into natural gas which delivers much more energy for the amount of carbon dioxide given off and produces much less air pollution. China is looking into polygneration — a method in which coal is converted into cleaner gaseous fuel that can be used to generate electricity and be processed into a petroleum substitute — as way of using coal without producing greenhouse gases.

In March 2017, China’s top economic planner said China would cut steel capacity by 50 million tonnes and coal output by more than 150 million tonnes in 2017 as part of China’s efforts to tackle pollution and curb excess supply. A report by National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it would shut or stop construction of coal-fired power plants with capacity of more than 50 million kilowatts. In its report, the NDRC said by 2020, the government has said it aims to close 800 million tonnes of outdated coal capacity. The 2017 targets came after the world's top coal consumer and steel maker far exceeded its 2016 goals to eliminate 250 million tonnes of coal and 45 million tonnes of steel capacity. Coal output fell 9 percent to 3.64 billion tonnes in 2016. [Source: Reuters, March 5, 2017]

Combating Low-Grade Coal Heating Use in Rural China

Getting people to use less low-grade coal for home heating is seen as one way to produce less coal-related pollution. In 2017, the Hebei provincial government announced that 1.8 million households would switch to natural gas from coal for fuel and heating in order to improve air quality.

China Daily reported: “Feng Yinchang, an environmental professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said the soaring consumption of low-quality coal for heating in rural areas is the major contributor to air pollution in the winter. There have been repeated government calls for the adoption of energy-saving equipment, such as more energy-efficient boilers and stoves. "If the government can replace all old boilers with the more energy-efficient ones, and can forbid the use of inferior coal in rural areas, northern China can cut its carbon emissions by at least 30 percent," said He Zhicheng, chief economist at Agricultural Bank of China. [Source: Zheng Jinran and Wang Yanfei, China Daily, December 12, 2015]

“But that poses a dilemma, said Zhang Lin, a senior analyst of, an energy information website. The government cannot force all rural households to use more expensive coal, even if it pollutes less, because "farmers care more about prices". On average, inferior coal can be cheaper than the good quality variety by 220 yuan per metric ton, Zhang said. Beijing's municipal government plans to take the lead in ironing out the difficulty. It began in November 2015 to allocate 360 million yuan ($56.3 million) to subsidize suburban households that acquire good-quality coal. The subsidy would amount to 800 yuan per ton, said Li Dongwei, a rural development official. The program was expected to run until March 2016. But it would take five years for Beijing to cut the use of low-quality coal in its suburban areas by 4.3 million tons.

“For all provincial governments it is a difficult task to take care of the heating resources for a much larger rural population, He said. “It is a problem without an immediate solution. Connecting all villages to central heating would come at immense cost. It might be more realistic to hope that more rural people move to the cities as part of the country's urbanization process. “In some places, "governments can help villagers replace coal with other energy sources, such as electricity and gas", Feng said.

Barbecues and Blasting a Hole in Mountain to Relieve Smog

Officials in Lanzhou once considered a plan to blast a "hole" in a nearby mountain to allow smog to escape from the valley that entraps it. One local environmentalist told Newsweek, "It's like a person is smoking in a house with all the doors closed. If we open a door, fresh air can blow in." The "hole" would have been produced by widening a narrow pass to two kilometers by blasting away sandy loess ridges with high-pressure hoses. Nobody knows if the plan would have worked. As outrageous as this scheme seems it was seriously considered. Replacing or improving the Soviet-designed factories would have billions of dollars.

A hole was never blasted but the top of a mountain was blown off. It ended up adding to the pollution problem not solving it. Even though elaborate sprinkler system was brought in to control dust, large amounts of polluting particles were hurled into the air by explosives and they contributed to particulate pollution.

In February 2013, AFP reported: “China web-users were furious over plans to tackle pollution with a ban on barbecues, wryly asking if Beijing would stamp out normal bodily functions in its war on smog. While many residents have grown tired of donning face-masks or having to stay indoors during prolonged bouts of heavy smog, China's food-loving public say forcing fire-grilled food off the streets is a step too far. "This is hilarious. What are they going to consider next? Banning fried food?" said one user on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. "What proportion of pollution comes from barbeques?" said another. "I wonder when the government will start banning breaking wind." State media said that the country's environmental watchdog had issued draft guidelines advising major cities to adopt legislation banning "barbecue-related activities". Barbequed food is a favourite dish in China, particularly lamb skewers, a speciality of the north-western region of Xinjiang.” [Source: AFP, February 21, 2013 ]

Efforts to Reduce Air Pollution from Cars in China

China has phased out leaded gasoline. , established laws for cars to install catalytic convertors. China also aims to cut air pollution by aggressively promoting electric cars, implementing stricter fuel-economy standards and raising fuel-quality standards to global levels. In September 2007, 100 Chinese cities , including Beijing, staged a “car free day.” The effort was largely ignored as middle class Chinese went about their chores using family cars. Beijing slashed the city’s quota on new car sales by almost 40 per cent in 2014. The number of cars there grew there very fast in the 2000s but now has been capped at around 6 million vehicles. Other major cities have also implemented measures to restrict car ownership.

To reduce air pollution in Beijing a license plate system similar to the one used in the 2008 Olympics was put in place. According to the system cars with license plate numbers ending in 0 or 5 would have to stay off the road on Monday. Those with license plate numbers ending in 1 or 6 would have to stay off the road on Tuesday, those with 2 and 7 would stay off on Wednesday and so on through the five weekdays. The measures were credited with reducing pollution by 10 percent.

A 2013 Chinese government plan to reduce air pollution, according to the New York Times “addressed vehicle emissions by removing all high-polluting “yellow label” vehicles that were registered before the end of 2005 from the roads by the end of 2015. In the three regions with heavy industry, all such vehicles are to be taken off the roads by 2015, and the same for all of China by 2017. In those three regions, gasoline and diesel of a high standard, China V, will be provided in certain cities. But the plan did not set targets for new vehicle emissions standards, which some environmental advocates say is a major omission. “We had been waiting for months for the new action plan,” Ms. Huang said. “We thought it might be a pivot point in history. Now it’s here, and we think it has very much fallen short of our expectations.” [Source: Edward Wong. New York Times, September 12, 2013]

In 2014, China said it planned to take more than five million ageing vehicles off the road that year, with 330,000 cars set to be decommissioned in Beijing alone, the government said in a policy document Reuters reported: “As many as 5.33 million "yellow label" vehicles that fail to meet Chinese fuel standards will be "eliminated" in 204, year, the document said. As well as the 330,000 cars in Beijing, 660,000 will be withdrawn from the surrounding province of Hebei, home to seven of China's smoggiest cities in 2013. Beijing plans to limit the total number of cars on the road to 5.6 million in 2014, with the number allowed to rise to 6 million by 2017. In 2013 year it cut the number of new license plates by 37 percent to 150,000 a year and is also paying for another 200,000 ageing vehicles to be upgraded. [Source: David Stanway and Kathy Chen, Reuters, May 26, 2014]

“The State Council document did not say how the plan would be implemented, but Beijing's municipal government has previously offered subsidies of between 2,500-14,500 yuan ($400-2,300) to drivers who voluntarily hand in their ageing vehicles to be scrapped. However, the subsidy didn't cover "yellow label" cars that fail to meet even minimum gasoline standards. Beijing currently forbids vehicles that do not meet required standards from entering the city, but officials have admitted that China currently lacks the monitoring and policing capability to ensure all cars make the grade, and drivers have also found ways to avoid detection.

Bright Ideas to Tackle Chinese Smog

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The city of Wuhan is considering building skyscrapers coated with a high-tech substance that can "eat" air pollutants. An artist is offering to suck particulates out of Beijing's dirty skies using a giant vacuum-cleaner-type device and sell jewelry made with the collected contaminants. One researcher is suggesting an "urban wind passage" in the Chinese capital, regulating the height and density of buildings so that smog has a dispersal channel. Other recent ideas include sending drones aloft to freeze particulates and drop them to Earth, or digging a 100-mile canal from Beijing to the sea to create a fresh-air corridor as water flows to the capital. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2014]

“Tinkerers such as Thomas Talhelm, for example, have come up with homemade air purifiers designed to improve indoor air quality. Talhelm isn't an engineer by trade — he's a PhD student in cultural psychology from the University of Virginia whose area of focus is China. But last year, mystified about why air purifiers on the commercial market cost so much, he designed one of his own using a fan, a strap and a HEPA filter he bought online.

“After he tested his invention with a particle counter and blogged about the results, friends and acquaintances started bugging him for parts. So he launched a business called SmartAir, selling his kits (starting at $33, compared with commercial purifiers costing thousands of dollars) and running workshops in cities around China teaching people how to build their own. To date, the company has sold close to 7,000 kits and has commissioned U.S.-based product designers to create an original SmartAir purifier system, said employee Gus Tate.

“Matt Hope went even more MacGyver. Using an Ikea wastebasket, a fighter-pilot mask, a motorcycle helmet, a small generator and other odds and ends, the Beijing-based British artist designed an air-purifying bicycle that he says delivers fresh air to the rider while peddling through Beijing's smoggy streets. So far, it's a one-off vehicle. Other ideas include a dress with sensors to let you know whether you're sitting pretty in dirty air, and a Filterette — which looks like a cigarette, only one puffs on it to inhale (supposedly cleaner) air, kind of like a smog snorkel (price per 8-pack, $9.95). "You no longer need to walk around looking like … someone with an infectious disease or a weird alien when trying to protect yourself from particulate pollutants with a hot and uncomfortable face mask," reads the promotional material.Beyond gadgets, there are straight-up gimmicks. Chinese entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao last year introduced "canned air" — freshly tinned breatheables in varieties including "pristine Tibet" and "post-industrial Taiwan."

“Starlight, an environmental firm based in Hebei province, recently unveiled a pollution-fighting mobile "fog cannon" designed to dampen the air and control particulate matter at coal depots and other industrial sites. Such technology is recognized as effective by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Shi Hongli, Starlight's general manager, said that the raft of "non-professional efforts out there can make it frustrating for a serious company like us."

“The Chinese government has also stepped up investment in environmental research, targeting $1.6 billion this year for air pollution studies. It is also devoting serious time and money to artificial-rain efforts, an idea that officials in California ruled out as impractical. This year, Beijing's Meteorological Bureau said it would spend $3.2 million on weather modification efforts aimed at smog reduction; according to the state-run China Daily newspaper, it was the first time weather modification aimed at air pollution was listed as a line item in the budget.

Tackling Beijing Smog with Domes and Maybe Skyscraper Sprinklers

The architecture firm Orproject has proposed building park domes in Beijing for protection from air pollution. These 'Bubbles' project could regulate temperature and air quality so people could live without the threat of pollution, the firm says. But critics of the project say they could make overall pollution worse through construction and supplying energy for the domes, adding the money could better spent on other things. [Source: Joel Landau NY Daily News, April 8, 2014]

Oliver Wainwright wrote in The Guardian: “A sports class is in full swing on the outskirts of Beijing. Herds of children charge after a football on an artificial pitch, criss-crossed with colourful markings and illuminated in high definition by the glare of bright white floodlights. It all seems normal enough — except for the fact that this familiar playground scene is taking place beneath a gigantic inflatable dome. “It’s a bit of a change having to go through an airlock on the way to class,” says Travis Washko, director of sports at the British School of Beijing. “But the kids love it, and parents can now rest assured their children are playing in a safe environment.” [Source: Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, December 16, 2014]

“The reason for the dome becomes apparent when you step outside. A grey blanket hangs in the sky, swamping the surroundings in a de-saturated haze and almost obscuring the buildings across the street. A red flag hangs above the school’s main entrance to warn it’s a no-go day: stay indoors at all costs. The airpocalypse has arrived.

“The British School is the latest of Beijing’s international colleges to go to the drastic lengths of building an artificial bubble in which to simulate a normal environment beneath the cloak of smog. Earlier this year, the nearby International School of Beijing lavished $4 million on a pair of domes covering an area of six tennis courts, with hospital-grade air-filtration systems, following the lead of the Beijing satellite of exclusive British private school Dulwich College, which opened its own clean-air dome last year.

“Other solutions proposed in Beijing have a more futuristic air. Environmental scientist Yu Shaocai has proposed fitting water sprinklers to the tops of tall buildings, to try and “wash” the smog out of the sky. “Water should be sprayed into the atmosphere like watering a garden,” Yu wrote in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, noting that most urban pollution hangs below 100m, so it could be caught by an artificial shower from the city’s taller towers. An expert in “wet deposition” (how rain can clean particles from the air), he thinks he’s got the science sorted, and the main challenge is just to “design the specific spray system that can spray a good raindrop size and [ensure] the most scavenging efficiencies for the air pollution.” But his hastily Photoshopped visuals of garden sprinklers stuck on top of skyscrapers don’t do much to inspire confidence.

APEC Blue and Reducing Air Pollution at the 2008 Olympics

Chinese authorities made an all-out effort to reduce air pollution in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics, relocating outdated, polluting factories and curtailing vehicle use, Chinese scientists were ordered to produce of quota of “blue sky days” in Beijing. Much of the $12.2 billion earmarked for cleaning up the city was focused on cleaning up the air. More than 200 of the foulest smokestack industries and power plants were closed or moved. An entire steelworks — Capital Iron and Steel — was moved out of Beijing, 100 miles to the east. It had been in Beijing for 50 years and used to emit nasty “red smoke all night” and once produced a toxic gas cloud that caused several people to choke to death.

Power plants were modified to reduce emissions; 16,000 coal-burning factories were renovated; 1,000 small coal mines were closed. Factories in the greater Beijing area and coal mines in nearby Shanxi Province were supposed to close down for weeks or months before the Olympics. Gas stations closed, industrial spraying and painting was banned. All construction was stopped to reduce dust levels. Officials with the Beijing Olympics Organizing committee sais their efforts payed off before the Olympics, saying that number of blue sky days has increased from 100 in 1998 to 241 in 2006.

The relief was temporary, as curbs on factories were relaxed and car sales continued to rocket after the games were over. While Beijing’s PM 10 level fell nearly a third from 2006 to 2009 — for the most part, in the years leading up to the Beijing Olympic of 2008 — it edged up that. Many of the polluting industries that were forced to relocate far from the capital before the 2008 Summer Olympics still pollute Beijing as the wind often carries their emissions there.

A similar effort dubbed, “APEC blue,” took place before and during the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. According to China Environmental News, the newspaper of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, 434,000 cadres from Beijing and six nearby provinces were enlisted for the task. Special holidays were given to local government officials and other workers as part of the effort to keep 11.7 million vehicles off the roads, significantly reducing auto emissions. Hundreds of construction sites, which stir up airborne particulate matter, were also shut down. The South China Morning Post said that roughly 10,000 factories in the region surrounding Beijing were shut during APEC; an additional 39,000 ran on reduced schedules to minimize pollution. Inspectors paid frequent visits to these factories, during both day and night, to ensure that the APEC guidelines were followed. [Source: Christina Larson Bloomberg, November 18, 2014]

Villagers contributed by going without heat. Associated Press reported from Yanqi Township:The nights are freezing for villagers near the site of an Asia-Pacific summit on the outskirts of Beijing, where authorities have banned wood fires to curb pollution and help ensure blue skies for the leaders instead of the usual grey smog. “"I now sleep under three quilts at night," said a man. "There cannot be any smoke, and we cannot heat our brick beds," said Bai, 68. Traditional raised sleeping platforms in frigid northern Chinese houses are often heated by coal and provide warmth during both the day and night. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, November 10, 2014]

U.S. Embassy Air Pollution Measurements Help Prod Beijing Into Action

In 2008 the American Embassy in Beijing posting readings from it PM 2.5 monitor on its Twitter account. PM 2.5 — particulates 2.5 microns in diameter or less, or — is among the most hazardous pollution because it easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. According to the New Year Times: Caused by dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, factories and construction sites, the particles increases the risk of cardiovascular ailments, respiratory disease and lung cancer if people are chronically exposed to them. Chinese authorities initially said that American officials had insulted the Chinese government by posting the 2.5 readings and that it could lead to “social consequences” in China and asked the embassy to restrict access to it. But in the end the embassy move goaded Beijing to make similar information available.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Perched atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is a device about the size of a microwave oven that spits out hourly measurements of PM 2.5 particles and instantly posts the results to Twitter and a dedicated iPhone application, where it is frequently picked up by Chinese bloggers. The embassy installed its monitor in 2008 before the Olympics to advise its personnel about air quality, but then decided it should make readings public under diplomatic rules that require that information regarding health and security risks be made available. The measurements drew widespread attention in November 2011, the first time a reading for fine particulate matter went above 500 micrograms per cubic meter, about seven times the U.S. standard for "acceptable" air quality. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2011]

The embassy reading was so high compared with the standards set by the U.S. "You couldn't get such a high level in the United States unless you were downwind from a forest fire," Dane Westerdahl, an air quality expert from Cornell University. Told the Los Angeles Times. The gap between the embassy and Beijing government readings was so great that, according to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, a Chinese official in 2009 tried to pressure the U.S. Embassy to stop making its readings public, saying the confusion could lead to “confusion” and “social consequences.” The Beijing municipal government, with more than two dozen monitoring stations around the city, has long measured PM levels of 10 micrometers in diameter, much larger than what the embassy measures. This has led to huge discrepancies, with Beijing authorities routinely reporting “clear blue skies” and only “slight” pollution on days when the American mission is declaring the air hazardous by international standards and warning children and the elderly to stay indoors. One day that was listed as “beyond index” by the U.S. Embassy was merely “slightly polluted” on the Beijing government scale.

The embassy ended up reporting that off-the-charts reading as "crazy bad." (Embassy officials say a computer programmer with a sense of humor embedded the language in the program linking the monitor to Twitter without realizing it would ever get used. The embassy quickly deleted the tweet and replaced it with "beyond index," but the fanciful description stuck in the imagination. After that more Beijingers — using their handheld devices and other means to access Twitter, which is officially blocked here — began closely following the U.S. figures, considered a truer reflection of what was in the air than the rosier government estimates. Later even the party-run Global Times questioned the official numbers, and why the embassy’s appeared to be more accurate. “Most people just have huge distrust of the government,” one Beijing resident told the Washington Post.

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times: Weary of waiting for the authorities to alert residents to the city’s PM2.5 levels, citizen activists in May 2011 took matters here into their own hands: they bought their own $4,000 air-quality monitor and posted its daily readings on the Internet. That began a chain reaction. Volunteers in Shanghai and Guangzhou purchased monitors in December, followed by citizens in Wenzhou, who are selling oranges to finance their device. Wenzhou donated $50 to volunteers in Wuhan, 140 miles inland. Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 “blue sky” days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 27, 2012]

After that the Ministry of Environmental Protection promised to set health standards for PM2.5 particulates “as soon as possible.” In January 2012, after years of concealing its data on such pollutants, Beijing began publishing hourly readings from one monitoring station. Later it released data form other monitoring stations. In 2018. the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said that it would rate air quality in 169 Chinese cities each month, up from the previous total of 74. Now China has perhaps the best network of such monitoring station in the world, As of 2018, it had more than 1,000 monitoring stations that make PM2.5 data available to the public in realtime in 200 cities. On top of this, beginning in 2013, the central government has required 15,000 factories — including influential state-run enterprises — to publicly report details on their air emissions and water discharges in real time, an unprecedented degree of disclosure according to the Washington Post. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, February 2, 2014]

Government Pollution Inspection Teams in Northern China

In 2017, China sent over 100 pollution inspection teams to cities around Beijing to investigate sources of smog and advise local authorities on how to address the problem. Some of China’s worst smog is found in this area. The South China Morning Post reported: “Environment minister Li Ganjie said the ministry would send experts to Beijing, Tianjin and 26 other cities in Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is supposed to reduce levels of the PM2.5 particulate by more than a quarter from 2012, while the average daily concentration is to be cut to 60 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing. [Source: Mimi Lau, South China Morning Post, September 16, 2017]

Reuters reported: “5,600 inspectors were sent on a year-long investigation into the sources of air pollution. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said that inspections into 28 northern cities in and around the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region will focus on improving the way the country's standards and laws are enforced. The 28 cities have already pledged to draw up detailed action plans to address smog, promising to shut small polluting enterprises and halve coal and steel production in the winter. The notice said the campaign was the largest ever undertaken and that it would seek to "normalize compliance" in a region frequently accused of turning a blind eye to polluters in order to protect jobs and revenues. The ministry has routinely named and shamed local governments and enterprises in northern China for failing to comply with anti-smog regulations. [Source: Reuters, Apr 6, 2017]

In early 2017, China's air quality inspectors found problems at more than 3,000 companies and said a large proportion had falsified data. Reuters reported: “The Ministry of Environmental Protection said it checked more than 8,500 firms in six municipalities and provinces including Beijing and central Henan, and found that many were not implementing air pollution control measures strictly or were still violating environmental regulations. Some companies, including a firm owned by Foxconn subsidiary FIH mobile in Hebei province's Langfang city, tried to stop inspectors from making checks, the ministry said. Others were found to be deliberating reporting false data. [Source: Reuters, March 30, 2017]

NASA Images Show How Covid-19 Helped Clear China’s Air

Satellite images from NASA showed that pollution over China cleared up during the coronavirus epidemic as factories were closed down and people stayed inside their homes. According to Yahoo News in March 2020: The Chinese government has operated strict curfews and isolation policies to curtail the spread of the deadly virus. “This has partly led to a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels according to NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). [Source: Jimmy Nsubuga, Yahoo News UK, March 1, 2020]

“Fei Liu, Air Quality Researcher at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.” NASA and the ESA used pollution monitoring satellites to analyse the changes and then released two maps to show the differences. The first map shows how Beijing and Shanghai was covered with large clouds of gas for most of January. In the second map from February, this drastically changed after the air cleared when coronavirus epicenter Wuhan and other areas were put in lockdown. The levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted by cars and factories, initially started to drop in Wuhan when roads and businesses were shut. The drop in nitrogen dioxide was also helped by new environmental regulations and the Lunar New Year holiday when people were off work.

Obstacles and Why Air Pollution in China Is Still Bad Despite Efforts to Clean It Up

Beijing claims that it is cracking down harder with steep fines on repeat offenders but factory owners and coal officials say that it is much cheaper to pay the fines and continue polluting than build new plants and take pollution-fighting measures. Many factory managers and government officials whose performance is judged by economic quotas and targets are reluctant to tackle air pollution if it means falling short of their targets. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of once-clean cities to “lightly polluted” rose from 100 to 141 cities and only a few cities have managed to meet China’s toughest standard, which is twice as loose as the World Health Organization guideline.

Even if China increased the efficiency of its coal burning power plants, it wouldn't make much of difference because so many small industries and household burn coal for heating, cooking and power. Many also feel that whatever advances are made reducing industrial pollution will be cancelled by pollution from a increasing number of vehicles on the road.

Just as air quality improved when economic growth slowed after the Lehman Brother collapsed it in 2008-09began to worsen when the economy recovered. According to a government study issued in July 2010, inhalable particulates have increased in Beijing, where officials have struggled to improve air quality by shutting down noxious factories and tightening auto emission standards. Despite such efforts, including an ambitious program aimed at reducing the use of coal for home heating, the average concentration of particulates in the capital air violated the World Health Organization standards more than 80 percent of the time during the last quarter of 2008. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 28, 2010]

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said many of the government efforts to curtail pollution had been offset by the number of construction projects that spit dust into the air and the surge in private car ownership. In Beijing, driving restrictions that removed a fifth of private cars from roads each weekday have been offset by 250,000 new cars that hit the city streets in the first four months of 2010.

In 2014, Chinese officials announced that they were offering a total of $1.65 billion to cities and regions that make “significant progress” in air pollution control, according to a report by Xinhua. According to the New York Times: “The announcement of the financial incentives revealed how difficult it has been for some leaders in Beijing to get many Chinese companies and government officials to comply with environmental regulations. Though central officials have been saying with growing vigor that pollution of all kinds must be curbed, their efforts to force other parts of the bureaucracy and the state-run economy to obey rules have been stymied by the self-interest of some groups. For example, the state-owned oil companies exert enormous influence on environmental policy, including the setting of fuel standards, and sometimes ignore orders from officials to upgrade their products. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 13, 2014]

Environmental News; David Wolman Blogspot; YouTube, Julie Chao, U.S. Olympics

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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