Severe air pollution chokes many Chinese cities. Soot and smog levels exceed national and international health standards, often greatly. 

Extreme air pollution events have been common, especially in the winter. A long period of especially severe air pollution in the winter of 2013 gained widespread attention and was labeled an “airpocalypse.” Similar incidents occurred in the years that followed. In January 2017 the Chinese government issued a national red alert for air pollution after dozens of cities across north and central China experienced smog so severe it caused widespread school closings and flight cancellations.[1]

During the fall and winter of 2017–2018, air pollution in Beijing and dozens of other Chinese cities dropped dramatically.

  • In the fourth quarter of 2017, PM2.5 concentrations in dozens of cities across northern China fell by a third as compared to the same period the year before.[2]
  • In January 2018, PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing fell 71% from the previous year, meeting China’s national air quality standard for the first time.[3]

The decline in air pollution levels continued during the rest of 2018, although at a slower pace. (Average PM2.5 levels in 338 of China’s largest cities fell 9.3% in 2018.) In the first half of 2019, air pollution levels in China’s largest cities were on average roughly the same as the year before.[4]

Air pollution remains a serious problem across much of China. Air quality in many Chinese cities is substantially worse than in US and European cities and often fails to meet international health standards.[5]

The health consequences of China’s air pollution are significant. Studies have found that:

  • air pollution contributes to 1.6 million premature deaths per year in China;[6]
  • roughly 500 million residents of northern China have lost more than 2.5 billion years of life expectancy due to air pollution from coal burning;[7]
  • almost 100 million people in China suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and air pollution is one of the biggest causes;[8]
  • deaths from cardiovascular and pulmonary disease in 272 Chinese cities are closely related to PM2.5 levels in those cities[9];  and
  • PM2.5 and ozone emissions from six sectors in China cause roughly 1.1 million premature deaths and cost approximately RMB267 billion (roughly $38 billion) per year.[10]

Air pollution is a top concern of many Chinese citizens. In a 2015 national survey, 76% of respondents said that air pollution is a “big problem” and 35% of respondents said it is a “very big problem.” The air pollution documentary Under the Dome was viewed more than 300 million times in China before it was removed from Internet platforms four days after its 2015 release.[11]

The principal cause of Chinese air pollution is coal combustion (for industrial processes, space heating and power generation). Vehicle exhaust—especially from diesel freight trucks—also plays an important and growing role. The air quality improvements in northern China since 2017 are due mainly to widespread conversion of coal-fired furnaces and boilers to natural gas.[12]

Air Pollution Policies

Cutting air pollution is a priority of Chinese leaders. President Xi Jinping promises to “make China’s skies blue again” and has spoken about the war against pollution in high-profile settings including the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 and 13th National People’s Congress in March 2018. He identifies cutting pollution as one of three priority “tough battles” for China in the years ahead. (The other two are eliminating poverty and reducing financial risks.) Premier Li Keqiang has also spoken about air pollution often. In September 2013, he declared that China would use “iron fists” to combat pollution.[13]

China’s first air pollution law dates to 1987. In the decades that followed, China’s air pollution laws were mostly ineffective due to sporadic enforcement, low penalties and weak monitoring. Perhaps most importantly, local officials generally lacked incentives to make clean air a priority. Starting around 2007, the Chinese government developed and implemented serious measures to control air pollution in connection with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. However, these measures affected only the Beijing area and were mostly short-term (such as shutting down factories before and during the Olympics). By 2009, air pollution in the Beijing area returned to earlier high levels.[14]

In September 2013 the Chinese government announced the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, following the horrific air pollution events of the previous winter. The action plan called for a 10% cut in PM10 concentrations by 2017 in cities across China, with more stringent targets in three key regions (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta). It described “10 tasks” for cleaning the air:

  1. Increase efforts in comprehensive control and reduce the emission of multipollutants.

  2. Optimize the industrial structure and promote industrial restructuring.

  3. Accelerate technology transformation and improve the capability to innovate.

  4. Adjust the energy structure and increase the clean energy supply.

  5. Strengthen environmental thresholds and optimize industrial layout.

  6. Better play the role of market mechanism and improve environmental economic policies.

  7. Improve the law and regulation system. Carry on supervision and management based on the law.

  8. Establish a regional coordination mechanism and integrated regional environmental management.

  9. Establish a monitoring and warning system. Cope with pollution episodes.

  10. Clarify the responsibilities of the government, enterprise and society. Mobilize public participation.[15]

From this general guidance, many specific policies and actions have emerged. Measures to control coal burning have been a top priority. They include a ban on new coal-fired power capacity, improved SO2 and NOx controls at coal-fired power plants and policies to promote alternatives to coal (including natural gas, hydropower, wind power, solar power and nuclear power). Stricter vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions standards have also been adopted. The Chinese government has led campaigns against the use of fireworks during Spring Festival, a long-standing Chinese tradition, for air quality reasons. (See poster below.)

Other changes include greater incentives for local officials to prioritize air quality, better air pollution monitoring, larger penalties and stricter enforcement. In 2014, Chinese authorities brought roughly 2,000 criminal cases for environmental violations—double the number from the past 10 years combined. In November 2016, more than 1100 Chinese officials were held accountable for violations of air pollution laws.[16]

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020) gives priority to fighting air pollution. In addition to limits on coal consumption, the plan sets quantitative goals for air pollution reduction and air quality, including a 15% cut in SO2 and NOx levels and a requirement that all cities meet air quality standards at least 80% of the time. Monitoring capabilities are enhanced dramatically, and each province is required to share air quality information regularly. Targets are set for deployment of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power.[17]

During 2017, strict policies with respect to coal burning, industrial activities and traffic were announced for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area. These helped produce the record cuts in pollution levels during the fall and winter of 2017–2018. However, natural gas supplies to replace coal in the region lagged, leading to shortages and inadequate heating during parts of the winter.[18]

In May 2018, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) reported that all 45 key tasks identified in the 2013 Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution had been completed on schedule. MEE reported that:

  •  between 2013 and 2017, the average concentration of PM10 in prefecture-level cities fell 22.7%; and

  •  between 2013 and 2017, the average concentration of PM2.5 fell 39.6% in Beijing- Tianjin-Hebei, 34.3% in the Yangtze River Delta and in 27.7% in the Pearl River Delta.[19]

In June 2018, the State Council issued its Three-Year Action Plan for Blue Sky Defense. According to the plan, its goals are: 

over three years efforts, the total load of main air pollutants will have been significantly reduced, along with less greenhouse gas emissions, and the concentration of fine particular matters will have been notably lowered down, which will have led to much less days with heavy air pollution, remarkably improved air quality, and much greater sense of happiness for the people from the sight of blue skies.[20]

The plan calls for measures to “strictly control the production capacity of resource-intensive and highly-polluting industries,” promote clean heating, cut pollution from vehicles (including in particular heavy trucks, grow forests and much more.

Relationship to Climate Change

Most measures to fight urban air pollution in China also help fight climate change.

Policies that promote solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power as alternatives to coal reduce both local air pollutants and heat-trapping gases. 

So do policies that promote energy efficiency. Policies that promote energy efficiency in Chinese industry, vehicles and buildings all have dual benefits, helping fight both local air pollution and climate change.[21]

Policies that promote natural gas as an alternative to coal help reduce local air pollution by 90% or more, depending on the pollutant. The impact of those policies on climate change is more complicated.

  • Natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of coal per unit of energy. Converting China’s vast coal-based heating and power infrastructure to natural gas would significantly reduce Chinese CO2 emissions.[22]
  • However, leaks during the production, distribution or consumption of natural gas could significantly reduce the climate change benefits of using natural gas to replace coal. Methane—the principal component of natural gas—is itself a powerful heat-trapping gas. As a rough rule of thumb, if more than 3%–8% of the natural gas consumed as an energy source leaks, that cancels the climate change benefits of switching from coal to natural gas.[23]
  • In addition, new natural gas infrastructure such as pipelines and receiving terminals will likely last for decades. That infrastructure could slow the transition to even cleaner energy sources. There may be a trade-off between the CO2 emissions reductions natural gas can deliver by displacing coal today and the CO2 emissions reductions natural gas could delay by slowing deployment of renewables and nuclear power in future years.[24]

China’s policies to promote electric vehicles provide significant local air pollution benefits, since electric vehicles do not have tailpipe emissions and the power to recharge them is usually generated outside urban centers. There is a debate among experts about the extent to which electric vehicles help mitigate CO2 emissions in China, since those vehicles increase power demand from China’s coal-heavy electric grid. Some studies have found little if any short-term climate benefit from electric vehicles as a result of this. Others have found modest benefits. In the long run, as China’s grid transitions from coal to low-carbon power sources, electric vehicles will have important climate benefits for China and be essential to “deep decarbonization” strategies.[25]

Finally, some technologies for controlling local air pollution are counterproductive when it comes to global warming. Scrubbers on coal plants have important local air pollution benefits, but generally increase CO2 emissions slightly since scrubbers require energy to operate. More significantly, synthetic natural gas can help reduce local air pollution by moving coal combustion from urban to rural areas but significantly increases CO2 emissions. Policies to promote synthetic natural gas are counterproductive when it comes to China’s climate goals.[26]

Figure 5-1


[1] See Kristin Aunan, Mette Halskov Hansen and Shuxiao Wang, “Air Pollution in China,” China Quarterly (2017). 

[2] “How China Cut Its Air Pollution,” The Economist (January 25, 2018); Lauri Myllyvirta, “Beijing Region Sees Record Breaking Drop in Winter Air Pollution,” Unearthed (December 12, 2017).

[3] Shanghaiist, Beijing Meets National Air Quality Standards for the First Time(February 8, 2018).

[4] Jennifer Pak, “Beijing declares dramatic success in fight against air pollution,”NPR Marketplace (May 8, 2019); “China warns of blanket restrictions in new round of environmental inspection,”Xinhua(July 9, 2019).

[5] European Environment Agency, “Air Quality in Europe—2017 Report” (2017) at pp.34–36; US Environmental Protection Agency, “Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Trends” (accessed June 10, 2018); US Environmental Protection Agency, “What Are the Air Quality Standards for PM 2.5” (accessed June 10, 2018); Nick Van Mead, “Cities with the Most Dangerous Air,” Guardian (February 13, 2017).

[6] Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller, “Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources,” PLOS ONE (August 2015).

[7] Yuyu Chen, Avraham Ebenstein, Michael Greenstone and Hongbin Li, “Evidence on the Impact of Sustained Exposure to Air Pollution on Life Expectancy from China’s Huai River Policy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (August 2013).

[8] Liwen Fang et al., “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in China: a Nationwide Prevalence Study,” Lancet Respiratory Medicine (June 2018).

[9] American Thoracic Society, “Chinese Air Pollution Linked to Respiratory and Cardiovascular Deaths,” ScienceDaily (February 10, 2017); Yaohua Tian et al., “Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Hospital Visits for Asthma in Beijing, China,” ScienceDirect (November 2017); Lei Zhao et al., “Association Between Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Mortality in China,” Oncotarget (September 12, 2017).

[10] Yefy Gu et al., “Impacts of sectoral emissions in China and the implications,” Environmental Research Letters (July 2018).

[11] See also the Associated Press, “As Income Rise in China, So Does Concern About Pollution”(October 2016); Richard Wike and Bridget Parker, “Corruption, Pollution, Inequality Are Top Concerns in China,”Pew Research Center(September 2015); George Gao, “As Smog Hangs Over Beijing, Chinese Cite Air Pollution As Major Concern,”Pew Research Center (December 2015).

[12] “How China Cut Its Air Pollution,”Economist(January 25, 2018); Lauri Myllyvirta, “Beijing Region Sees Record Breaking Drop in Winter Air Pollution,”Unearthed (December 12, 2017); Shanghaiist, “Beijing Meets National Air Quality Standards for the First Time”(February 8, 2018); Paul Kishimoto et al., “The Impact of Coordinated Policies on Air Pollution Emissions from Road Transportation in China,”Science Direct(July 2017); Mark Dwortzan, “Tackling Air Pollution in China,”MIT News (May 2017); Qi Deng and Huazun Yu, “北京PM2.5来源机动车等移动源成最大头” [Motor Vehicles Account for Majority of Beijing’s PM 2.5 Pollution], Beijing News(May 14, 2018).11. See also the Associated Press, “As Income Rise in China, So Does Concern About Pollution” (October 2016); Richard Wike and Bridget Parker, “Corruption, Pollution, Inequality Are Top Concerns in China,” Pew Research Center (September 2015); George Gao, “As Smog Hangs Over Beijing, Chinese Cite Air Pollution As Major Concern,” Pew Research Center (December 2015).

[13] China Daily“李克强对话夏季达沃斯论坛中外企业家代表” [Premier Li Keqiang’s Dialogues with Chinese and Foreign Entrepreneurs in Summer Davos Forum](September 2013); ABC News, “China’s Premier Li Keqiang Vows to Tackle Chronic Air Pollution”(March 2017); Ministry of Foreign Affairs“Transcript of Premier Li Keqiang’s Meeting with the Press at the Fifth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress”(March 2017).

[14] Yana Jin, Henrik Andersson and Shiqiu Zhang, “Air Pollution Control Policies in China: A Retrospective and Prospect,”International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health(December 2016); Rob Schmitz, “China’s Fight for Cleaner Air,”Marketplace (July 2014); Colgate University, “The History of Air Pollution in China.”

[15] China’s State Council, “National Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution”(2013).

[16] Yana Jin, Henrik Andersson and Shiqiu Zhang, “Air Pollution Control Policies in China” (December 2016); China News, “环保部:2014年8458名环境案件犯罪嫌疑人被抓捕” [Ministry of Environmental Protection: 8458 Suspects Arrested in Environmental Criminal Actions in 2014](June 2015); Christopher Beam, “China Tries a New Tactic to Combat Pollution: Transparency,”New Yorker(February 2015).

[17] NDRC, “13th Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China”(2016) at pp.19 and 127; China’s State Council“十三五”生态环境保护规划》主要内容” [Key Components of the Five-Year Plan for Nationwide Ecological Protection](2016); Barbara Finamore, “Tackling Pollution in China’s 13th Five Year Plan: Emphasis on Enforcement,”NRDC (March 2016); Beth Gardiner, “China’s Surprising Solutions to Clear Killer Air,”National Geographic(May 5, 2017); “Environmental Damages: 1,140 Chinese Officials Held Accountable,”China Daily(November 2017).

[18] P., “How China Cut Its Air Pollution” (January 25, 2018); Damien Sharkov, “China Issues First National Smog Red Alert,”Newsweek(2017).

[19] Ministry of Ecology and Environment, “Circular on the Final Assessment of the Implementation Plan of the Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan” (May 17, 2018).

[20] State Council, “打赢蓝天保卫战三年行动计划”[Three-Year Action Plan to Win the Blue Sky Defense War](June 27, 2018); “The State Council rolls out a three-year action plan for clean air,”Ministry of Ecology and Environment (July 13, 2018).

[21] See Mark Dwortzan, “Tackling Air Pollution in China,”MIT News (May 2017).

[22] Yue Qin, Ryan Edwards, Fan Tong and Denise L. Mauzerall, “Can Switching from Coal to Shale Gas Bring Net Carbon Reductions to China?,”ACS Publications(February 2017).

[23] Methane breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Experts consider methane to be roughly 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period and 28 times more powerful over a 100-year period. See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2014: Synthesis, Fifth Assessment Report”(2014) at p.87; Daniel Raimi, “The Fracking Debate,” Columbia University Press (2017) at p.111.

[24] See Dave Roberts, “More natural gas isn’t a “middle ground”—it’s a climate disaster,”Vox(May 30, 2019)

[25] See, e.g., IEA, “Global EV Outlook 2019”at p.51; Qiao Qinyu et al., “Cradle-to-gate greenhouse gas emissions of battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles in China,”Applied Energy(May 10, 2017); Qian Zhang et al., “Electric Vehicle Market Penetration and Impacts on Energy Consumption and CO2 Emission in the Future: Beijing Case,”Energies(2017); Xinyu Chen et al., “Impacts of Fleet Types and Charging Modes for Electric Vehicles on Emissions Under Different Penetrations of Wind Power,” Nature Energy(May 2018), 10.1038/s41560-018-0133-0; Leah Burrows, “Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles in China? It Depends on How They Are Charged,”Harvard University (May 2018); Charles Clover, “Pollution Studies Cast Doubt on China’s Electric-car Policies,”Financial Times(May 2018).

[26] Haijun Zhao, Weichun Ma, Hongjia Dong and Ping Jiang, “Analysis of Co-Effects on Air Pollutants and CO2Emissions Generated by End-of-Pipe Measures of Pollution Control in China’s Coal-Fired Power Plants,”Sustainability(2017). See discussion in Chapter 12 of this Guide.

[27] “Man Took the Exact Same Picture Every Day for a Year to Highlight Beijing’s Air Pollution,” PetaPixel (November 14, 2014).

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