Beijing Winter Olympic blue and China’s long march against smog

The Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games were held in Beijing and neighbouring city Zhangjiakou on 4-20 February and 4-13 March of 2022. Beijing promised to the world to meet national air quality standards by 2022, when it bidded for hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014.

The Big Air Shougang Park, the only venue for a snow event in downtown Beijing, is part of an urban redevelopment project and is described by Olympics officials as the world’s first permanent venue for big air.Credit.Doug Mills/The New York Times

On 4 January 2022, Beijing Municipal Ecology and Environment Bureau announced that Beijing’s air quality met China’s national standards in 2021. It is the first time since monitoring started and the first time this century. The yearly average concentration of PM2.5, the most dangerous pollutant, and the number one focus of China’s efforts, fell 63.1% compared to 2013, to 33 µg/m3, against a national standard of 35 µg/m3.

However, with less than two weeks to go until the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics, heavy smog blanketed Beijing and PM2.5 was measured at 205 µg/m3 on January 24. Officials from China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) said the Olympics are arriving just as seasonal weather creates “extremely unfavourable conditions” across northern China. MEE promised to fix the situation ahead of the Opening Ceremonies on 4 February and authorised local governments to take “necessary action” to improve air quality. With efforts made by local governments and unfavourable conditions eased, PM2.5 dropped to 5 µg/m3 on the opening day.

According to MEE, the average PM2.5 concentrations of Beijing and Zhangjiakou during the two events are 36 µg/m3 and 22 µg/m3 respectively, which fell 56.1% and 50% compared with the same period in 2021. Daily PM2.5 concentrations remained below the national standard for 24-hour average concentrations throughout the duration of the Games. Meanwhile, the average PM2.5 concentration of Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities (officially known as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and surroundings, commonly as 2+26 cities) was 52 µg/m3, or 20% lower than the year before.

Regional measurements during Beijing Winter Olympics

Winter Olympics and Paralympics were held during the winter and during the heating season in North China — the time when atmospheric conditions tend to be the most prone to smog formation. Because the majority of the pollution sources are located at the neighbouring city groups, outside of Beijing, regional pollution control strategies were set up to ensure blue sky in Beijing during the two events. 

Daily PM2.5 monitoring from satellites for the Beijing Winter Olympics by the Air Quality Remote Monitoring Team of Chinese Academy of Sciences. The map shows the eight cities and provinces that take measurements to reduce regional air pollutants. They cover one fifth of Chinese land area. These cities and provinces around Beijing all host large capacities of coal power and heavy industries. For example, Hebei province is the heartland of China’s steel industry, which accounts for over one-fifth of China’s crude steel output in 2021. 

Eight provinces, Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, Henan, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, scaled down their heavy industry output and traffic. This led to a reduction in air pollutant emissions by at least one third within the region. 

According to CREA analysis, the crude steel output of January-February 2022 declined 16% overall in the above eight cities and provinces, with a maximum reduction of 29% in both Hebei and Tianjin. The output of cement of the above region also shows a 12% decline in total.

China’s long march against smog

The public concern and outrage over air pollution reached a boiling point in the winter 2012-13 as heavy smog frequently hit vast areas of the country. China has blown the horn against severe air pollution since September 2013 with the implement a five-year “Air Pollution Control Action Plan” (seen as phase 1), setting out pollution reduction targets for three key regions by 2017 and 10 major measurements, such as coal consumption cap, replacing coal with gas and electricity etc. 

The focus areas of this plan are the three big cities groups with bounding pollution reduction targets of 25%, 20% and 15% respectively, or so called key regions as follows:

  • Jing-Jin-Ji: originally covers Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province. More cities in Shandong, Henan and Shanxi province were included in subsequent policies, and the region expanded to “Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and soundings”, commonly referred to as the “2+26 cities”; in this document is referred to as “2+26 cities”
  • Yangtze River Delta: covers Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and parts of Anhui province; here is referred to as “YRD”
  • Pearl River Delta: covers nine cities in Guangdong province, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai etc;  here is referred to as “PRD”

In July 2018, the 2nd phase “Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War 2018-2020” was put into force. It adjusted the key regions according to air quality improvement. PDR was moved out and “Fenwei Plain” where air pollution stayed still with little improvement was added. The annual average PM2.5 concentration of Fenwei Plain in 2017 was 68 µg/m3, worse than that of 2+26 cities with 64 µg/m3. Its SO2 concentration was also significantly higher than other key regions. The highest hourly SO2 concentration was recorded at 1300 µg/m3 or 2.6 times of the national standard in Linfen, a city with large coal mines of Shanxi province, in January 2017. The cities in Fenwei Plain were among the worst air quality city blacklist of MEE.

  • Fenwei Plain: encompasses 11 cities in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan provinces, around the city of Xi’an; here is referred to as “Fenwei” 

Winter is the season with worst air quality due to more coal burnt for heating and unfavourable weather conditions. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has prepared “Winter Air Pollution Action Plan for Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and sounding cities (2+26 cities)” annually since the 2017-2018 winter. YRD and Fenwei winter plans were introduced separately or combined with the 2+26 cities in later years.

We analysed official data compiled from China National Environmental Monitoring Centre to reveal the air quality trends. Our results show the level of PM2.5, NO2 and SO2 in all provinces decreased from 2015 to 2021, with a more significant decline in the first 2-3 years and becoming relatively flat in the following years. In 22 out of the 31 provinces, PM2.5 concentrations were below the national annual PM2.5 standard in 2021. The provinces where average concentrations were still above the standard are found in the priority regions of the 2+26 cities and Fenwei Plain, as well as in Xinjiang Province. Furthermore, in provinces where average concentrations are close to the standard, at least some cities remain in violation. Notably, the level of O3 stayed steady or even increased in the past 6 years.

Wintertime air pollution reduced significantly in all key regions and nationwide in the past years. Fenwei plain is the only key region where the 6-month average PM2.5 concentration is still above 60 µg/m3 in wintertime. The provinces within Fenwei plain, Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi, are also among the laggards. The strong air pollution control measurements in 2+26 cities have forced some heavy polluting plants to move to the neighbouring Fenwei plain which has less controls in 2016-2017. This caused the air pollution level in Fenwei plain to go up to a dangerously high record in 2017 winter, which is part of the reason that Fenwei plain has been added as one key region in 2018 winter.

Source: CREA, data compiled from China National Environmental Monitoring Centre

Big gap remaining between China national air quality standard and WHO guidelines

Beijing celebrated meeting the national air quality standard for PM2.5 level of 35 µg/m3 in 2021. However, the air pollution is still at a worrying level that threatens people’s health. It implies an approximately 45% increase in the risk of lung cancer, 40% increase in the risk of stroke & adult diabetes, 70% increase in ischaemic heart disease and doubling the risk of acute lower respiratory infections, based on latest risk models.

China’s current national ambient air quality standard entered into force in 2012 and the annual PM2.5 average concentration limit, 35 µg/m3, is equal to WHO 2021 Air Quality Guideline (WHO 2021 AQG) interim target 1. WHO suggests that the interim targets should serve as incremental steps in the progressive reduction of air pollution towards the air quality guideline levels and are intended for use in areas where air pollution is high. In other words, the interim targets should be regarded as steps towards ultimately achieving air quality guideline levels, rather than as end targets. For PM2.5, the most dangerous air pollutant, the WHO 2021 AQG annual mean level is 5 µg/m3 — one seventh of China’s national standard. 

Further steps to continue the blue sky war

China has achieved significant progress in its pursuit of blue skies in the past 10 years. There is still a long way to go to meet the air quality guidelines by WHO. Here are some suggestions for next steps.

  • Update air quality standard based on WHO AQG. The national air quality standard and fast established nationwide air quality  monitoring system played an important role in the blue sky war. Since over two thirds of the provinces have met the national air quality standards, it is time to put strengthening the standards on policy agenda.
  • Research on and strategy for Ozone pollution should be in place. PM2.5, SO2 and NO2 have been reduced effectively, however Ozone levels remain high and become primary pollutants over PM2.5 in certain regions in summer. The formation mechanism and sources of Ozone is more complicated which needs specific strategy based on scientific research.
  • Optimise energy structure and industrial structure. China’s heavy reliance on coal and a high portfolio of heavy polluting industries, such as steel and cement, are the primary reasons causing air pollution. Replacing coal with gas and electricity for residential heating and cooking in North China has cleaned the air greatly. Over 80% of the coal power plants have been retrofitted to meet the ultra low emission standards, and 80% of the steel industry will be retrofitted by 2025. With all the low-hanging fruits being harvested, further air quality improvement will be replacing more coal power generation with renewable energy and reducing the outputs of heavy industry.