National air pollution action plans devised by China have seen significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.
Air pollution levels in the main Chinese cities at the beginning of the 1980s were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890.
In response to London’s Great Smog of 1952, the United Kingdom introduced the first air pollution law in the world – the Clean Air Act 1956.
The difference between the UK and China on combatting air pollution is in the speed of improvements: Air pollution in China has been decreasing at a similar trajectory as London’s 90 years earlier, but at twice the pace. While extreme air pollution levels in China’s recent history are typical for any industrializing economy, its pace in cleaning up the pollution is fast by historical standards.
Laws regulating SO2 emissions have existed in China since 1998, when the State Council approved the establishment of the ’Two Control Zones’, a policy to address acid rain and sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions. Enforcement of this policy was intensified in 2000.
However, China started to seriously control air pollution from 2006 with the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) which implemented a 10% (SO2) emissions reduction goal by limiting emissions for each province.
In 2007 the State Council took air pollution reporting and monitoring away from provincial governments and put it directly under the control of the the Ministry for Environmental Protection, with the environment ministry reporting directly to the State Council.
The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (small atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.
As part of the second phase of its battle against air pollution, in 2018, China introduced its Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War.
While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard- an average of 35µg/m³.
The air quality over major Chinese cities has continued to improve. Air pollution in 339 Chinese cities improved in 2021, with average concentrations of small, hazardous airborne particles known as PM2.5 down 9.1% from a year earlier to 30 micrograms per cubic metre, official monitoring data showed.
China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment said average concentrations of all major pollutants – including ground-level ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide – fell in the 339 monitored cities last year.
Data from environmental authorities in China’s capital, Beijing shows that between 2013 and 2021 average levels of larger particulates, PM2.5 and PM10 for the city, fell by 63.1 per cent and 49.1 per cent respectively. These pollutants come from vehicle emissions and cooking smoke, settle in the respiratory system, and can contribute to coughs, asthma attacks and high blood pressure. Meanwhile, levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, which come from the burning of oil and coal, and can cause smog and acid rain, dropped by 53.6 per cent and 88.7 per cent respectively.
In October 2021, the monthly reading for PM2.5 fell to an average of 25 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing, the lowest measurement in autumn and winter (October to March) since data was first collected in the capital.
Since 2008 the Chinese economy has more than tripled in size, yet it continues to significantly reduce air pollution levels. As the figure below indicates, since 2006 China’s SO2 levels have “decoupled” from its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is a very significant point, as the reductions achieved have not been simply against a small increase in economic growth, but a level of economic growth that is astounding.
Going back to our earlier comparison of China’s trajectory as compared to that of London 90 years ago, it is interesting to note that in October 2020 it was reported by environmental law NGO ClientEarth that in the United Kingdom 75% of air quality reporting zones (including London) had illegal levels of air pollution. Under English laws, the government has to report every year on where it is failing to meet the legal limits for air pollution. Analysis of the data for 2019 showed the government was still breaching legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution – in 33 out of the 43 national reporting zones.
Following legal action initiated by the NGO, in March 2021 the UK Westminster government was found guilty by the European Court of Justice of “systematically and persistently” breaching air pollution limits. The court also found that the country failed to see through its legal obligation to put in place sufficient plans to tackle the problem of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.
Earth.Org, July 30 2021.
Environmental Defense Fund, May 17, 2018.
London School of Economics, August 2017.
China Environment, 20 January 2022.