A disheartening finding on trends in China's air pollution


For at least a year now China’s air quality has been seeing-except for in a handful of western cities-continuous improvements. For the first time, I was able to offer a message of hope that  China is on the right track to fix its infamous air pollution problems, despite having to don a protective face mask far more days than I would like to.

This summer however, that trend halted. Although it has been reported that PM2.5 levels dropped in the first half of 2016, a closer looks at data from the year’s second quarter shows that pollution actually worsened in nearly one third of the cities for which data is available.

Moreover, the worsening air quality wasn’t located in a particular region, nor was it a fluke solely caused by unfavourable weather conditions. Cities across the entire country, including major cities Shanghai and Guangzhou, saw PM2.5 levels rise.

As I assessed the data, I began to worry that the hard-won progress we’ve made against air pollution over the past months would be undermined.

I began to ask myself, are we taking one step forward and two steps back?

The reasons for the stalling of air quality improvements is far from mysterious, however. The culprit, as ever, is coal-burning heavy industry, which saw an uptick in production in the second quarter of this year. Greenpeace East Asia compiled a graph tracing average urban PM2.5 concentration and production levels for the major heavy industrial output.

The correlation is clear:

[1] Normalized PM2.5 is used to control for weather conditions from seasonal variation.

So for China to clear its skies and guarantee clean, healthy air for all, transforming both the economy and the energy sector away from coal burning is the vital big step. This is under way, but has recently been experiencing setbacks as coal-intensive industries such as concrete and steel increased their production in the last few months.

The need for this energy re-structure was also emphasized in the recently published mid-term review of the “Air Ten” policy as a vital next step  to drive down pollution levels in the plans second stage (2016-17)

Moreover, the China energy-watchers community is eagerly awaiting the energy sector’s own 13th Five Year Plan, which should enshrine the transition away from coal and towards clean renewables in a comprehensive policy blueprint. Greenpeace East Asia is hoping that this plan will include a national cap on coal consumption, to ensure that coal use does not rebound from the decline it has experienced for 2 years.

This summer’s jump in PM2.5 levels was disheartening to see.  However, it does seem more likely that this is a matter of two steps forward, one back, rather than one forward and two back - a hiccup, not the reversal of a trend.

With a transformation of China’s energy mix and economy ongoing, and a new blueprint for the energy sector about to come into force however, my hope is that this is simply a temporary blip in the efforts to make the air I, my family, friends and the citizens of China breath every day safe and clean.

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