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Policy Impact

China: National Air Quality Action Plan (2013)

China’s War on Pollution Has Cut Smog by 12 percent. In 2016, three years into fighting a “War on Pollution,” China is seeing improvements. If these improvements are sustained, people in China could see their life expectancy increase by 0.5 years.

Over the last few decades, China has gained a reputation for being one of the most polluted countries in the world. Yet, it hasn’t been in the top three since 2013. Indeed, air pollution is a challenge for China, but the country has made great strides in reducing its pollution in recent years thanks to a series of decisive actions taken after intense public scrutiny.

Public concern about worsening air pollution began mounting in the late 1990s. In 2007, Ma Jun, director of China’s path breaking environmental NGO, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, released the China Air Pollution Map, a tool that allowed users to view air quality data from around the country. Beginning in 2008, the U.S. embassy in Beijing began publicly posting readings from its own air quality monitor on Twitter and the State Department website, which residents quickly pointed out conflicted with the level of air quality reported by the city government. By 2012, the U.S. consulates in Guangzhou and Shanghai also had set up their own pollution monitors and began reporting data.

Then, in the summer of 2013, EPIC Director Michael Greenstone and three co-authors published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found high air pollution had cut the lifespans of people living in northern China short by about five years compared to those living in the south. The clear demonstration of the health impacts further galvanized public scrutiny and drew the attention of the environment ministry.

Soon after, reports began to circulate of foreigners leaving the country due to health concerns, just as China experienced some of its highest concentrations of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) on record with little reason to believe conditions would ever improve. In the country’s capital city of Beijing in 2013, for example, the average PM2.5 concentration that was seven times the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe, and twice the country’s own Class 2 national standard. In January of 2014, pollution monitor readings reached 30 to 45 times recommended daily levels, and city officials warned residents to stay indoors. Similarly, in Shanghai, the annual average concentration was 5.5 times the WHO standard. Across the entire Chinese population, the average resident was exposed to a PM2.5 concentration of 45 μg/m3, which corresponds to a decline in life expectancy by 3.4 years.

The average resident was exposed to a PM2.5 concentration of 45 μg/m3, which corresponds to a decline in life expectancy by 3.4 years.

The Policy

Amid one of the worst stretches of air pollution in modern Chinese history, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution” at the beginning of 2014 during the opening of China’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. The timing of the declaration—at the kickoff of a nationally televised conference typically reserved for discussing key economic targets—marked an important shift in the country’s long-standing policy of prioritizing economic growth over concerns about environmental protection. It also marked an important change in the government’s official rhetoric about the country’s air quality. In the past, state media had deflected concerns about air quality by claiming poor visibility was due to “fog” and that emissions had no effect on levels of smog. Now, the government stressed environmental responsibility, stating the country could not “pollute now and clean up later” and would fight pollution with “an iron fist.”

The declaration followed the release just months earlier of the National Air Quality Action Plan, which laid out specific targets to improve air quality by the end of 2017. The Plan set aside $270 billion, and the Beijing city government set aside an additional $120 billion, to reduce ambient air pollution. Across all urban areas, the Plan aimed to reduce PM10 by at least 10 percent relative to 2012 levels. The most heavily-polluted areas in the country were given specific targets:

  1. Reduce PM2.5 in the three target regions of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta by 25, 20, 15 percent, respectively.
  2. Reduce annual PM2.5 in Beijing by 34% from the 2013 level

The government’s strategies for achieving these goals included:

  1. Build pollution reduction into government officials’ incentives so promotions depended on both environmental audits and the economic performance of their jurisdictions. Provincial and local officials are now incentivized to improve the environment in their jurisdictions.
  2. Prohibit new coal-fired plants in the 3 target regions and require existing coal plants to reduce emissions or be replaced with natural gas. In 2017, Shanxi province, China’s largest coal producer, shut down 27 coal mines. By January 2018, Beijing had closed its last coal-fired power plant and the national government cancelled plans to build 103 more.
  3. Increase renewable energy generation. Renewable sources made up more than a quarter of energy generated in China in 2017. In comparison, they made up just 18% of the U.S. energy generation that year.
  4. Reduce iron and steel making capacity in industry. Between 2016 and 2017, China shut down 115 million tons of steel capacity, and further cuts are planned.
  5. In large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, control vehicle emissions by restricting the number of cars on the road on any given day. Each of these cities has a quota on the number of new license plates issued each year, capping the amount of cars on the road.
  6. Better enforce emissions standards. In late 2017, China suspended the production of 553 car models that do not meet fuel economy standards, including ones made by foreign and state-run companies.
  7. Increase transparency in government reporting of air quality statistics. China has built a nationwide network of air pollution monitors and makes the data publicly available. By March 2017, there were over 5000 monitoring stations in China.

These aggressive actions have come with some unintended consequences. For example, in the winter of 2017-2018 officials began removing coal boilers used for heating from many homes and businesses even though replacements were not yet available everywhere. This left some without heat. Those who were connected to natural gas lines saw their prices surge because of the undersupply. For China, work remains not only in sustaining and furthering its pollution reductions, but also in aligning incentives, market structures and local realities to smooth transitions to cleaner options.

The Impacts

The Chinese government has largely followed through with its air pollution reduction strategies, vastly changing its energy and transportation mix in recent years. While consumption from coal decreased 3.5% from 2013-2017, solar consumption increased by more than 71% in 2016 alone. At the same time, 1.23 million electric vehicles are now on the road in China.

Thanks to these actions, between 2013 and 2016, particulate pollution exposure declined by an average of 12 percent across the Chinese population. If that reduction is sustained, it would equate to a gain in life expectancy of 0.5 years. Tianjin, one of China’s three most polluted cities in 2013, saw a 14 percent reduction in particulate pollution, translating to a gain of 1.2 years of life expectancy for its 13 million residents, if sustained. In Henan, the province that saw the largest pollution reduction, residents are exposed to 20 percent less particulate pollution than in 2013, equating to a 1.3 year gain in life expectancy. To put China’s success in context, the pollution reduction in China from 2013-2016 is greater than that seen in the United States from 1998-2016.

Satellite-derived particulate pollution data is not yet available for 2017, the last year of the National Air Quality Action Plan’s timespan. However, the aggressive actions by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and local officials to ensure that targets would be met in the key regions of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Pearl River Delta, and the Yangtze River Delta would have further reduced particulate pollution below 2016 levels, even as they underscored the need for longer-term solutions to make the reductions permanent.Satellite-derived particulate pollution data is not yet available for 2017, the last year of the National Air Quality Action Plan’s timespan.

[1]This page shows pollution data and associated life expectancy results from the AQLI’s own satellite-derived pollution dataset. Thus, they are generally lower than the pollution and life expectancy results in the “Is China Winning its War on Pollution?” report, which are based on the Chinese government’s ground-level pollution monitors. Since China’s War on Pollution is a recent policy initiative, the report uses monitor data to (1) cover an additional year, 2017, when much pollution reduction progress was made, and (2) avoids satellite data’s potential error in measuring pollution trends over a short time span. An additional cause of discrepancies between the data sources is that the AQLI’s pollution data is net of dust, which is a substantial part of what monitors observe – e.g. about 8% in Beijing.