Greenpeace East Asia has released its City Rankings for 2015 following one of the worst winters on record. Data from 366 cities across China was collected and analysed and ranked by pollution levels. 

 

What a year for smog in China! In September Beijing saw crystal blue skies and in December a winter of grey smog and red alerts.

In November, China’s north east saw smog which brought visibility down to 100 metres. Public awareness grew to new heights through the viral documentary ‘Under the Dome’ and the quirky antics of artists such as Nut Brother.

On the policy front, Beijing’s government began to recognise the hazards smog poses and introduced ‘red alert’ measures to protects its citizens. And on the economic front, consumption of the dirty fossil fuel coal is continuing to fall, while China has just declared a three year moratorium on the opening of new coal mines. On top of this, renewables are taking off like never before, in China, and around the world.

To round the year off, Greenpeace have once again mined the data to find out what’s really going on. 

Analysis from the end of year city rankings shows that despite the airpocalypse that smothered northern China in December, air quality is definitely improving.

Average PM2.5 concentration dropped by 10% nationwide compared to 2014 levels, which is a significant improvement and part of a positive trend.

The major urban centres of Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen all saw decreases in PM2.5 concentration this year. However, Shanghai’s PM2.5 levels, which rarely make the headlines, increased this year by about 3%. 

 

The WHO recently labelled air pollution a ‘global public health emergency’. For the residents of Chinese cities which have been taken siege by hazardous smog on an alarmingly regular basis this winter, this emergency is a very real part of life. With a predicted 4,400 people dying from air-pollution related causes every day, China’s air is still clearly far from safe. 

By the end of 2015, 80% of the ranked cities still failed to meet second grade of China’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard of 35µg/m3, while the national average of PM2.5 levels remained over 5 times the WHO guideline level of 10µg/m3.

Red alert

Beijingers received a stark reminder of the gravity of the air pollution problem this winter, when heavy smog hit the city in waves and a total of two red alerts were called in December, closing schools and limiting transportation. It was Beijing’s worst winter in two years.

So what happened? Why, despite the overall trend of improvement, was Beijing’s final two months of 2015 so severely smoggy?

 

Greenpeace’s analysis shows that weather had a large part to play in helping smog stick around this winter.  Beijing experienced unusually frequent combinations of low wind speeds and high humidity in December- perfect conditions for smog to accumulate.

The weather is unpredictable and cannot be regulated. What can be regulated, however, is the source of the pollutants which form the smog. The only way to avoid another winter of red alerts and record breaking smog, is to significantly reduce pollutants at the source.

A Golden Opportunity

And now is the perfect opportunity to do this. China is about to announce the 13th Five Year Plan, a policy blueprint for the next five years. We’ve been calling for a crucially needed national coal consumption cap for a while now. Opportunities to introduce it have already been missed, but the 13th Five Year Plan is one that must not be.

Good signs are already here. 2015 closed with China’s historic commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and an unprecedented global deal to phase out fossil fuels at the Paris Climate Conference. The new year began with the signal that coal is on the way out, after almost two years of coal decline in China, which drove a global plateau in coal use.

China is already breaking free from its coal addiction, but for some of its smog-choked cities where a cap has not been set, the change isn't happening fast enough. Including a nationwide coal consumption cap in the 13th Five Year Plan will put another nail in the coffin of king coal, and will be a key step towards securing safe, breathable air across the country. 

Dong Liansai is a Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia