Are China’s Blue Skies Here to Stay?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In mid-January, the environmental group Greenpeace announced dramatic improvements in air quality across China. In 74 Chinese cities, measurements of PM2.5, the fine particles that have been a major contributor to the country’s choked skies, declined 35 percent from 2013 to 2017. In Beijing, PM2.5 fell 54 percent in the last quarter of 2017. And yet, Greenpeace also noted that coal use accelerated between 2016 and 2017, slowing the progress of the National Air Quality Action Campaign and threatening the campaign’s continued progress. Also clouding the good news, air pollution has worsened in some parts of the country as polluting industries have shifted production. What is the significance of these changes, and can the reductions in air pollution be sustained and improved upon? —The Editors


With residents in China’s capital breathing easier so far this winter, Beijing certainly has won a seasonal battle on air pollution. It is still too early though to tell if China has won the war. The good news is with the right policies in place cleaning up is not “mission impossible.” Progress could and should be accelerated.

An unprecedented winter air quality campaign is what made the difference. The campaign, aimed at delivering China’s 2017 air quality targets, is a comprehensive policy package containing both temporary campaign-style actions and permanent measures that will yield long-term benefits.

Among the temporary measures, Beijing has scaled down industrial activities in the Huabei region. This effectively has brought down regional coal consumption and pollution. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environmental Protection reportedly has dispatched a 5,000-person-strong inspection team to enforce policies on the ground.

Replacing the so-called “distributed coal” burned in individual households for heating with gas or electricity is probably the most important permanent measure. If this switch could be carried out more smoothly next winter with sufficient gas supply, it would reduce coal consumption further in northern China. Other policies such as an upgrade to the gasoline standard also would help to improve air quality. Additionally, factories that are shut down this winter may decide to close or move permanently given the high costs associated with the annual administrative “boom and bust.”

All of these contributed to better air so far this winter, but there are a few important footnotes.

First, air pollution is not a Beijing-only problem. The improvement observed in the capital may not be the same elsewhere. In fact, a few new hotspots have emerged over the past year: northern Jiangsu, Heilongjiang, Henan, Sichuan, and Xinjiang have experienced either decelerated progress or worsening air quality.

Second, the meteorological conditions in Beijing were quite favorable over the past months. It takes time to analyze the weight of weather in this round of air quality improvement, but attributing the blue sky solely to wind isn’t accurate. Neither should there be complacency in betting on the wind for China’s cleanup.

Third, data quality is oftentimes cited as a source of doubt. In the case of PM2.5, though, it is important to realize information monopoly simply does not exist anymore. While not ruling out the possibility of data fraud in individual cases, PM2.5 readings are much better scrutinized now. A less portable device costing less than $100 can monitor real time air quality (and reveal any discrepancy with official data). Such devices are becoming common in Chinese families.

Looking ahead, it is safe to assume air quality will stay high on the political agenda in 2018. Many are expecting the upcoming spring as an important checkpoint—when the winter campaign ends, will pollution come back? In fact, now that the 2017 target has been met, some are expecting policy enforcement to relax in January.

After reviewing the delivery of 2017 targets, cities are expected to set their Phase II targets this year. Their level of ambition will be critical in guiding subsequent efforts. As China’s environmental reform deepens, 2018 will be a year where complex social and economic problems start to intertwine closely with the environmental campaign. Already in focus is the problem of heating that came as a result of the coal-to-gas switch. Economic policy reforms must look at equal access to heat for all.

Finally, ozone pollution increasingly is becoming a major threat to public health, particularly in the summertime. This issue also deserves urgent attention in 2018.

Beijing’s blue skies this winter signal better air quality now than in years past—and less pollution means a healthier populace. In fact, all of northeast China has been blessed with a relatively smog-free winter thus far, a result of central and local government policies as well as fortunate weather. The clean air is largely thanks to the Party’s concerted campaign to lessen air pollution levels by reducing coal consumption, both in industrial activities and in distributed household use. The immediate results are a cause for optimism, indicating that the central government takes air pollution seriously, is responsive to demands of its citizens, and is able to meet its pollution targets. Yet there are many reasons to add a hefty amount of caution to this optimism.

Stepping back and viewing China’s pollution problems at the national and international scales, the seemingly sunny picture becomes more cloudy. By reducing coal consumption in and around Beijing, the central government has pushed energy production and pollution to other areas in the nation’s interior. We see this added burden in places such as Sichuan province and the Xinjiang region, which have experienced slow or negative progress in curbing air pollution. Meanwhile, water and soil contamination remains alarmingly high in large swaths of the country, and these hazards are more difficult to ameliorate than are airborne toxins.

Among the many pollutants that are harmful to human health, the government has only started to tackle the most visible, although there are other toxins that, if neglected, could negate the progress made to reduce air pollution. For instance, the 2017 State of the Global Air Report found an increase in ozone-related deaths between 2010 and 2015 in China. Other toxins, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are, however, very hazardous for human health and react with other secondary pollutants like NOx to generate more particulate pollution. Failing to develop policies to tackle a range of air pollutants and address underlying sources could lead to rebound effects.

To assess China’s total environmental footprint, one must look beyond the skies above Beijing and northeast China. As China’s rising economic tide spills over its borders, its environmental reach now extends well beyond the Gobi and Himalayas. Pollution is now exported from China to developing countries, especially those included in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. The Party has not established principles to guide environmentally sound investment abroad, and while China pledges to reduce coal-fired electricity at home, it builds coal plants overseas. The Global Environment Institute found that between 2001 and 2016, China invested in or developed 240 coal power projects in One Belt, One Road countries, totaling 251 gigawatts of generating capacity. The country’s exporting of environmental degradation and carbon emissions via projects dressed up as development aid, as well as its expanding appetite for natural resources extracted from foreign lands, has drawn fierce criticism. If China expects to continue to expand its reach abroad, it will need to respond to these critics who are pushing for its adoption of responsible investing practices to prevent a leakage of pollution beyond its borders.

People living in and around Beijing are breathing easier this winter and that is cause for celebration. We have long known that even short respites from high pollution levels can bring substantial health benefits. For example, women who were in their eighth month of pregnancy during the clean air days of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on average, gave birth to babies with higher birth weights than in prior or subsequent years. Another study showed that children born after the closure of a coal-fired power plant in Chongqing saw measurable benefits in motor, language, adaptive, and social development. We should give credit where credit is due. This is the product of a comprehensive program of regulation backed by political will and strong public demand that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

But along a number of other dimensions, current efforts have been inadequate.

Pollution Levels. Despite reductions, pollution levels in Beijing remain too high. The annual average PM2.5 level in Beijing was still 58 micrograms per cubic meter—nearly six times World Health Organization-recommended levels and far in excess of China’s own national air quality standards for PM2.5. And, as the Greenpeace report shows, there has been leakage of pollution to other Chinese provinces and abroad. Shifting the problem is not solving the problem.

Cost-Effectiveness. By all accounts, the current approach has been more costly than need be. Critics have complained about coarse “one size fits all” shut-down and pollution control orders. It is hard to imagine that intense 5,600-person top-down inspection campaigns are sustainable in the long term. These approaches have some rational basis, arguably designed to deal with persistent institutional weaknesses within the system and the problems of local discretion/corruption. But now is the time to begin taking cost-effectiveness more seriously.

Justice. Inefficient enforcement is compounded by injustice in the allocation of burdens. This issue hit the headlines last month as a ban on coal for winter heating went into effect, leaving too many rural residents in miserable, freezing conditions. But concerns about injustice have grown in a range of other areas. Are shutdowns targeting businesses that don’t deserve to be eliminated? Is there some process for reasonable and just compensation where appropriate? Are the skyrocketing number of environmental crime cases being prosecuted fairly? Can we be sure that innocent people are not ending up in jail? Is Beijing accelerating the outsourcing of its pollution to poorer parts of the country/world as developed countries have long done?

Reducing pollution is of course no easy task. As we have seen in my city of Los Angeles, it is a persistent, decades-long challenge—not easily solved. We should therefore recognize China’s achievement this winter, but emphasize that much more needs to be done. This is an early season victory against a strong opponent and some parts of the game were not all that pretty. While we can now literally all take a deep breath and appreciate what has been done, much more work lies ahead.

China’s relentless efforts to improve urban air quality are working. Beijing’s recent results may be the most headline-grabbing, but there are other success stories from around the country as well. For example, Shenzhen achieved China’s national PM2.5 target (35 ug/m3) in 2015, and last year became the first Chinese city to voluntarily set a more stringent goal to meet the WHO’s interim target II standard (25 ug/m3) by 2020. China deserves credit for comprehensively tackling its air quality crisis—especially over the past five years—and delivering impressive results across much of the country.

But as Li Shuo, Angel, and Alex all mentioned, it’s far too premature to declare victory. Further progress will require doubling down on China’s existing regulatory and legal approaches, plus all the strategies mentioned above: prioritizing low-efficiency, highly polluting “distributed” or “scattered” coal; thinking nationally (and internationally) to avoid leakage; tackling other pollutants especially ozone; and more.

The one essential strategy that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this discussion is to tackle air pollution and climate change together through an integrated approach. Last fall, Tsinghua University published a modeling study concluding that China cannot achieve its 2030 air quality targets through end-of-pipe controls alone. Only by aggressively optimizing the energy and industrial structure (i.e., switching away from coal and heavy industry) can China deliver the necessary deep reductions in air pollution—and with clear climate co-benefits. When the State Council releases its expected second phase air quality improvement action plan later this year, we will be looking for strengthened components on sustainable energy and measures to curb carbon emissions in parallel with air pollutants