Although air pollution in Beijing, Tianjin and more than two dozen surrounding cities dropped dramatically in the fourth quarter of last year amid a government crackdown on foul air, the country saw only a small improvement in air quality for all of 2017, according to a Greenpeace report.
The environmental watchdog also urged China to be concerned about rising ozone pollution which has emerged as a major health risk in cities, potentially causing deaths from strokes and heart disease. “China’s national air pollution action plan has brought massive reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks, but policies favouring coal and heavy industry are holding back progress,” Huang Wei, Greenpeace’s East Asia climate and energy campaigner, said. “Nationwide, 2017 saw the slowest air quality improvement on record,” she said.
Levels of toxic PM2.5 – small, breathable particles that pose a risk to people’s health – in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities dropped by 33.1 per cent year on year in the final three months of last year as the government shut down factories and dispatched inspectors to enforce environmental targets, Greenpeace found.
However, the average PM2.5 concentration fell just 4.5 per cent nationwide for the whole year, the weakest full-year improvementsince the start of China’s “war on pollution” in 2013. A fourth-quarter drop in air pollution in the northern cities was offset by worsening air quality over the first three quarters of last year owing to a rebound in heavy industry.
PM2.5 in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities climbed by 6 per cent over the first three quarters, rising in the rust-belt provinces of Shanxi and Hebei by 23 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively. A fourth-quarter improvement in air quality in the 28 cities was attributed to more stringent curbs on industrial production, a reduction in the use of cars and a small-scale ban on coal burning, combined with favourable weather.
But Greenpeace criticised the abrupt implementation of the coal ban which left many people without adequate heating as natural gas supplies failed to meet demand. “The coal ban was poorly implemented and caused hundreds of thousands of households to go without proper heating for weeks,” the report published on Thursday said.
The campaign group also urged China to be concerned about rising ozone pollution levels which hit a record high in the country last year. Summertime average ozone levels jumped 25 per cent year on year in the 28 cities and 10 per cent nationwide, it said. Ozone pollution can cause lung damage, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as exacerbating symptoms in asthma patients.
Greenpeace attributed the rising ozone levels to a summertime rise in factory production. Factories in provinces that were not affected by government curbs increased their output in the last three months of the year, with PM 2.5 levels in Heilongjiang, Anhui and Jiangsu jumping in the fourth quarter.
Guangdong, Shanxi and Ningxia also saw substantial PM 2.5 rises for the whole year amid double-digit growth in steel output, coal-fired power generation and the production of other metals, according to the report. China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.
The 28 cities that recorded the sharpest falls had been asked to meet 2017 air quality targets to cut average concentration by about 15 per cent. Greenpeace called on China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to release guidelines for the second phase of its air pollution action plan as soon as possible.
“The second phase of the air pollution action plan must be as ambitious as the first and should include targets for ozone reduction,” Huang said. “China’s energy transition is already under way, but economic policies that favour coal are putting our health on the line.” Meanwhile, Tian Weiyong, director of the ministry’s environmental monitoring division, told Thepaper.cn that 5,600 inspectors were working around the clock to make sure the 28 cities met their targets by March.