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 2014, 2015 and 2016. 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 November 2017, PM2.5 concentrations in dozens of cities across northern China fell an average of 37% from the previous year. In December 2017, they fell more than 16% from the previous year.
  • In January 2018, PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing fell 71% from the previous year to 34 micrograms per cubic meter, meeting China’s national air quality standard for the first time. Beijing’s Bureau of Environmental Protection said that 25 days during January had good or excellent air quality.

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.2 The air quality improvements during the fall and winter of 2017–2018 were due mainly to widespread conversion of coal-fired furnaces and boilers to natural gas, as well as temporary administrative closures of heavy industrial facilities in Hebei.3

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.4

The health consequences of China’s air pollution are significant. One study linked air pollution to 1.6 million premature deaths per year in China. Another study found more than 2.5 billion years of life expectancy are lost as a result of air pollution in northern China alone. Lung cancer mortality rates in Hebei, one of China’s most polluted provinces, nearly tripled from 1973–1975 to 2010–2011. A study released in 2017 found that approximately 9% of China’s adult population (almost 100 million people) suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and that air pollution is one of the biggest causes. Research also shows a strong relationship between air pollution and cardiovascular disease in China.5

Air Pollution Policies

Cutting air pollution is a priority of Chinese leaders. President Xi Jinping promises to “make China’s skies blue again” and spoke repeatedly about the war against pollution in high-profile speeches at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 and 13th National People’s Congress in March 2018.6 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.)7 Premier Li Keqiang has spoken about air pollution often. In September 2013, he declared that China would use “iron fists” to combat pollution.8

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 levels.9

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.10

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 longstanding 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 1,100 Chinese officials were held accountable for violations of air pollution laws.11

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.12

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.13

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. According to MEE data,

  •  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.14

    According to MEE data, the average concentration of PM2.5 in Beijing in 2017 was 58 micrograms/cubic meter. Although a significant improvement from prior year levels, this is substantially above levels in US and European cities as well as international health standards.15

Relationship to Climate Change

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

Measures to transition from coal to other fuels are central to cutting both urban air pollution and carbon emissions. Policies that promote solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power help achieve both goals since, in contrast to the coal that dominates China’s energy supply, those technologies produce almost no local air pollution or heat-trapping gases.

Policies that promote natural gas as an alternative to coal help cut both local air pollution (by 90% or more, depending on the pollutant) and carbon emissions (by roughly 50%). There are two qualifiers:

  • First, leaks in the course of production, distribution or consumption of natural gas could significantly diminish the greenhouse gas benefits of using natural gas to replace coal. Methane—the principal component of natural gas—is itself a powerful greenhouse gas. As a rough rule of thumb, if more than 3%–8% of the natural gas consumed as an energy source leaks, that would cancel the greenhouse gas benefits of switching from coal to natural gas.16
  • Second, although today natural gas displaces coal in China, in the medium and long terms, natural gas infrastructure could slow deployment of solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power. There may be a trade-o between the carbon emissions reductions natural gas can deliver today by displacing coal and the carbon emissions reductions natural gas could make more challenging in future decades by slowing deployment of renewables and nuclear power.

Policies that promote energy efficiency also reduce both local air pollution and carbon emissions. Policies to promote industrial energy efficiency are especially important, as are policies to improve the energy efficiency of Chinese buildings. China’s fuel efficiency standards for vehicles also cut both local air pollution and carbon emissions (as well as reducing China’s reliance on imported oil).17

China’s policies to promote electric vehicles provide significant local air pollution benefits, since electric vehicles do not have tailpipe emissions. There is a debate among experts about the extent to which electric vehicles help mitigate carbon 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.18

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 carbon emissions slightly, since they require energy to operate.19 More significantly, synthetic natural gas can help reduce local air pollution by moving coal combustion from urban to rural areas but significantly increases carbon emissions. Policies to promote synthetic natural gas are counterproductive when it comes to China’s climate goals.20


Source: Zou Yi, (November 2014), https://petapixel.com/2014/11/14/ one-years-worth-pictures-highlight-horrible-air-pollution-beijing/


1. See Kristin Aunan, Mette Halskov Hansen and Shuxiao Wang, “Air Pollution in China,”  (2017), https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/introduction-air-pollution-in-china/8D36F205F EC68513BC45E2DEC0F2AC26/core-reader.

2. Paul Natsuo Kishimoto, Valerie J. Karplus, Min Zhong, Eri Saikawa, Xu Zhang and Xiliang Zhang, “The Impact of Coordinated Policies on Air Pollution Emissions from Road Transportation in China,” Science Direct (July 2017), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1361920916305041?via=ihub; Mark Dwortzan, “Tackling Air Pollution in China,” MIT News (May 2017), http://news.mit.edu/2017/tackling-air-pollution-in-china-0517; 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), http://www.bjnews.com.cn/news/2018/05/14/486842.html; Kebin He, “Analysis of PM2.5 Pollution Characteristics and Control Strategies in the Jing-Jin-Ji Region,” Energy Foundation China (November 16, 2013), http://www.efchina.org/Attachments/Activity/restoringbluesky-en/7.%20He%20 Kebin_EN.pdf. He Kebin_EN.pdf; Paulson Institute, “Climate Change, Air Quality and the Economy: Integrating Policy for China’s Economic and Environmental Prosperity” (June 2015), http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/ wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Climate-Change-Air-Quality-and-the-Economy-Integrating-Policy-for-China’s- Economic-and-Environmental-Prosperity.pdf.

3. Ministry of Environmental Protection, “2017 12 月京津冀、长三角、珠三角区域及直 辖市、省会城市和计划单列市 空 气质量报告” [December 2017 Air Quality Report in Chinese Cities] (January 3, 2018), http://www.mep.gov.cn/ hjzl/dqhj/cskqzlzkyb/201801/P020180119365883994830.pdf, “How China Cut Its Air Pollution,” Economist (January 25, 2018), https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2018/01/economist-explains-19; Lauri Myllyvirta, “Beijing Region Sees Record Breaking Drop in Winter Air Pollution,” Unearthed (December 12, 2017), https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/12/12/beijing-region-sees-record-breaking-drop-winter-air-pollution- levels/; Shanghaiist, “Beijing Meets National Air Quality Standards for the First Time” (February 8, 2018), https:// medium.com/shanghaiist/beijing-meets-national-air-quality-standards-for-the-first-time-8f938d7ce502.

4. See also the Associated Press, “As Income Rise in China, So Does Concern About Pollution” (October 2016), https://theconversation.com/as-incomes-rise-in-china-so-does-concern-about-pollution-65617; Richard Wike and Bridget Parker, “Corruption, Pollution, Inequality Are Top Concerns in China,” Pew Research Center (September 2015), http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/09/24/corruption-pollution-inequality-are-top-concerns-in-china/; George Gao, “As Smog Hangs Over Beijing, Chinese Cite Air Pollution As Major Concern,” Pew Research Center (December 2015), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/10/as-smog-hangs-over-beijing-chinese-cite- air-pollution-as-major-concern/.

5. 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), http://www.pnas.org/content/110/32/12936; Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller, “Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources,” PLOS ONE (August 2015), http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0135749; Dwortzan, “Tackling Air Pollution in China” (May 2017); Liwen Fang et al., “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in China: a Nationwide Prevalence Study,” Lancet Respiratory Medicine (June 2018), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(18)30103-6/fulltext; American Thoracic Society, “Chinese Air Pollution Linked to Respiratory and Cardiovascular Deaths,” ScienceDaily (February 10, 2017), http://www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2017/02/170210084550.htm; Yaohua Tian et al., “Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Hospital Visits for Asthma in Beijing, China,” ScienceDirect (November 2017), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0269749117314252; Lei Zhao et al., “Association Between Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Mortality in China,” Oncotarget (September 12, 2017), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5630425/.

6. China Daily, “Speech Delivered by Xi Jinping at the First Session of the 13th NPC” (March 21, 2018), https:// www.chinadailyhk.com/articles/184/187/127/1521628772832.html; Bloomberg News, “Xi’s Speech Had 89 Mentions of the ‘Environment,’ Just 70 of the ‘Economy’” (October 18, 2017), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/ articles/2017-10-18/in-xi-s-vision-for-china-environment-edges-out-economy.

7. Xinhua News, “Xi Stresses E orts to Win ‘Three Tough Battles’” (April 2018), http://www.xinhuanet.com/ english/2018-04/02/c_137083515.htm; Chi-yuk Choi, Jun Mai and Nectar Gan, “China’s New Vice-premiers to Lead Battles Against Poverty, Pollution and Economic Risks,” South China Morning Post (March 2018), http:// www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2135094/chinas-new-vice-premiers-lead-battles-against- poverty; Xinhua News, “Xi Calls for Maintaining New Development Philosophy, Winning ‘Three Tough Battles’” (June 2018), http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-04/29/c_137144438.htm.

8. 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), http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/micro-reading/china/2013-09-11/content_10085059_3.html; ABC News, “China’s Premier Li Keqiang Vows to Tackle Chronic Air Pollution” (March 2017), http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-06/china-premier-li-keqiang-vows-to-tackle- air-pollution/8328884; 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), http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ zxxx_662805/t1446292.shtml.

9. 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), https://www. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5201360/#B47-ijerph-13-01219; Rob Schmitz, “China’s Fight for Cleaner Air,” Marketplace (July 2014), https://www.marketplace.org/2014/07/15/sustainability/we-used-be-china/chinas-fight- cleaner-air; Colgate University, “The History of Air Pollution in China,” https://chinaenv.colgate.edu/airpollution/ air-pollution-in-china/.

10. China’s State Council, “National Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution” (2013), http://www. sustainabletransport.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/National-Action-Plan-of-Air-Pollution-Control.pdf.

11. 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), http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2015/06- 29/7372292.shtml; Christopher Beam, “China Tries a New Tactic to Combat Pollution: Transparency,” New Yorker (February 2015), https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/china-tries-new-tactic-combat-pollution- transparency.

12. NDRC, “13th Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China” (2016) at pp.19 and 127, http://en.ndrc.gov.cn/newsrelease/201612/P020161207645765233498.pdf; 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), http://www.scio.gov.cn/32344/32345/33969/35466/zy35470/Document/1519993/1519993. html; Barbara Finamore, “Tackling Pollution in China’s 13th Five Year Plan: Emphasis on Enforcement,” NRDC (March 2016), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/barbara-finamore/tackling-pollution-chinas-13th-five-year-plan- emphasis-enforcement; Beth Gardiner, “China’s Surprising Solutions to Clear Killer Air,” National Geographic (May 5, 2017), https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/china-air-pollution-solutions-environment-tangshan/; “Environmental Damages: 1,140 Chinese Officials Held Accountable,” China Daily (November 2017), https://www. chinadailyhk.com/articles/214/111/170/1510827726099.html.

13. P., “How China Cut Its Air Pollution” (January 25, 2018); Damien Sharkov, “China Issues First National Smog Red Alert,” Newsweek (2017), http://www.newsweek.com/china-issues-first-national-smog-red-alert-538121.

14. Ministry of Ecology and Environment, “Circular on the Final Assessment of the Implementation Plan of the Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan” (May 17, 2018), http://www.zhb.gov.cn/gkml/sthjbgw/stbgth/201806/ t20180601_442262.html.

15. Ibid.; European Environment Agency, “Air Quality in Europe – 2017 Report” (2017) at pp.34–36, https://www.eea. europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2017; US Environmental Protection Agency, “Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Trends” (accessed June 10, 2018), https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/particulate-matter-pm25-trends; US Environmental Protection Agency, “What Are the Air Quality Standards for PM 2.5” (accessed June 10, 2018), https://www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/pm-aq-standards.html; Nick Van Mead, “Cities with the Most Dangerous Air,” Guardian (February 13, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/cities/datablog/2017/feb/13/most-polluted- cities-world-listed-region.

16. Methane breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making precise comparisons a bit complicated. 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, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf; Daniel Raimi, “The Fracking Debate,” Columbia University Press (2017) at p.111.

17. Dwortzan, “Tackling Air Pollution in China” (May 2017); 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), https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b04072?src=recsys&journalCode=esthag.

18. See, e.g., Ye Wu et al., “Impact Assessment of Vehicle Electrification on Regional Air Quality in China and Climate Impact Assessment of Electric Vehicles in 2050,” Tsinghua University (2016); Hewu Wang, Xiaobin Zhang and Minggao Ouyang, “Energy and Environmental Life-cycle Assessment of Passenger Car Electrification Based on Beijing Driving Patterns,” China Technology Sciences (April 2015), https://doi.org/10.1007/s11431-015-5786-3; 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), DOI: 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), https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2018/05/environmental-impact-of-electric-vehicles-in-china- it-depends-on-how-they-are-charged; Charles Clover, “Pollution Studies Cast Doubt on China’s Electric-car Policies,” Financial Times (May 2018), https://www.ft.com/content/6f55d4cc-58ed-11e8-bdb7-f6677d2e1ce8.

19. Haijun Zhao, Weichun Ma, Hongjia Dong and Ping Jiang, “Analysis of Co-Effects on Air Pollutants and CO2 Emissions Generated by End-of-Pipe Measures of Pollution Control in China’s Coal-Fired Power Plants,” Sustainability (2017), http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/9/4/499/htm.

20. See discussion in the “Synthetic Natural Gas” chapter below.

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