China floats modest air quality targets for the winter as smog raises its ugly head

As the first bouts of winter smog have reached Beijing, the country’s environmental ministry has published draft air quality action plans for the winter. The plans include air quality targets to be met by each target area, as well as detailed measures to be taken, such as controlling emissions from unregulated small industries, retrofitting steel plants with stronger emissions controls, limitations on steel, cement and other heavy industry output during air quality alerts at plants that don’t meet emissions standards, replacing household coal stoves with cleaner-burning coal briquettes, electricity or gas.
In early October, the smog was back in Beijing, after staying away for half a year.

Draft plans have been published for the three air pollution “key control regions”: 

  • Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities (officially known as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and surroundings, commonly as 2+26 cities; I will call this the “Beijing region”)
  • Yangtze River Delta, covering Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and parts of Anhui; I will call this the “Shanghai region”
  • Fenwei Plain (same link as for Beijing), covering the region of Sha’anxi and Shanxi provinces around the city of Xi’an; I will call this the “Xi’an region”

The environment ministry said earlier that air quality targets would not be set for the coming winter on the basis of previous winter’s pollution levels. This was interpreted as saying that there would be no targets at all, so the release of the targets is good news in that sense.

Because of the exceptional disruption caused by the COVID-19 lockdown in February-March, the targets are set in a different way than usual. Usually, the winter action plans have targeted a year-on year reduction from the previous winter, defined as the six-month period from October to March. This year, the plan is to set targets for October to December based on the levels one year ago, and for the January to March period based on the levels two years ago. To further complicate interpretations, the targets are given only as average concentrations, not percentage changes. This has made it hard to assess how meaningful these targets are.

To make sense of the targets, we compiled officially reported monthly air quality data for the three regions and compared the numbers with the targets.

Targeted average PM2.5 concentrations for this winter compared with the past trend. Targeted levels are understandably much higher than those during past winter, when COVID-19 lockdowns produced two months of unprecedentedly good air quality. However, the targets require only modest increases also when compared to the levels two years ago.

For the Beijing region, averaged over the six month period, the targets imply a 2.5% reduction compared with 2019. Given the 1.5-year gap between the reference and target periods (1 year for quarter 4 and 2 years for quarter 1), this means an annual rate of improvement of about 1.7%. At this rate, it would take more than 25 years to meet the Chinese air quality standards. These standards are based on the World Health Organization’s “first interim target”, which is only the first step towards good air quality.

For the Xi’an region, the targets translate to a 3.5% improvement, and for the Shanghai region, a 4.5% improvement.

Planning activities around air quality forecasts is a part of life for many Beijing residents. Source: IQAir

Furthermore, the targeted pollutant concentrations for the coming winter are higher than already achieved three years ago, during the 2017-18 winter period, in the Beijing region, and during 2016-17 in the Shanghai region.

While the economy, and emissions, have rebounded from the lows of the COVID-19 lockdown, the economic impact lingers, with data on coal imports and output from domestic mines indicating that coal consumption is still down on year – imports fell 30% on the third quarter while output in July-August was flat. Refined oil consumption was down 3% in August, the latest data point available. 

As a result, pollution levels have been trending well below last year’s levels in most of the country in recent months, as shown by our “rebound tracker”. This should make it easy to meet more ambitious air quality targets, especially as a lot of effort has been put into retrofitting coal power plants and steel plants with new emissions controls.

Pollutant levels around Shanghai rebounded strongly at the start of October, during and after the “Golden Week” holiday, indicating that the target might require more stringent action.

Steel production has been surging and this will affect the Beijing region, the main concentration of steel industry in China and therefore, obviously, in the world. The plans didn’t introduce new targets for closing down “outdated” industrial capacity, but reiterated the existing target of cutting steel production capacity in Hebei province, the main steel producer to 200 million tonnes per year, from a reported capacity of 298Mt in 2016.

The short-term priority for the government is obviously economic recovery, which creates uncertainty and understandably makes the regulators hesitant to set targets that could interfere with growth. The challenge is that industrial output and state-driven investment spending have led the recovery while measures to support consumption have been modest compared with other major economies. This has meant that pollution has rebounded faster than the economy.

For local officials, meeting air quality targets is a high priority given they are factored directly into performance assessments. Implementation and enforcement of different prescribed measures will therefore hinge on how strong or weak the targets are.

General Secretary Xi’s emphasis on green recovery at the UN General Assembly speech should give regulators the mandate to aim higher: “We aim to … achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era and thus create a powerful force driving sustainable development.”  

Furthermore, with the Winter Olympics just a year and a bit away, systematic progress needs to be made on pollution now. Otherwise, China is setting itself up for another campaign-style effort to fend off the smog for the duration of the Games, as we warned at the start of the year.