• The Path to Clearer Skies: Fighting Air Pollution in China

Air Monitoring

The Path to Clearer Skies: Fighting Air Pollution in China

Apr 27 2023

China's air pollution is a well-documented issue, with over a million people estimated to die each year due to its effects. However, the country has been proactive in developing innovative solutions to tackle this challenge. Once a city devastated by an earthquake, Tangshan has now become a hub of heavy industry and coal-burning, accounting for more than 5% of the world's steel production. This rapid industrialization has led to serious air pollution, prompting the Chinese government to declare "war" on the problem. 

The primary culprits are particulate emissions from cars, coal-fired power stations, and steel plants, which create a dense, smoggy atmosphere. Beijing has taken temporary measures such as closing schools, factories, and construction sites, and restricting private car use, but a long-term solution is needed to ensure the health and safety of its citizens.  

Experts have weighed in on China's efforts to combat air pollution. Dr. Jim Zhang, a professor of global environmental health at Duke University, has expressed frustration over the loss of the air quality gains achieved during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He argues that while the urgency to address the problem is there, the government's prioritization of economic interests over public health has led to inefficient implementation of air quality regulations. 

Hongjun Zhan, a former Chinese air pollution law writer, acknowledges that legislation has improved, but enforcement remains weak. In contrast, Li Yan of Greenpeace China sees the introduction of "red alerts" as a sign of progress in the government's response to extreme pollution. She credits the National Air Pollution Action Plan for reducing coal use in metropolitan areas, which has led to improved air quality in major cities such as Beijing and the Yangtze River Delta region. 

However, Mun Ho, an economist at the Harvard University China project, notes that the economic slowdown has complicated anti-pollution efforts. Authorities must balance the need for environmental protection with maintaining social stability and preventing unemployment. Ho emphasizes the importance of allocating more government resources to pollution control equipment. 

In response to the growing crisis, China introduced various measures to combat air pollution. The government banned new coal-fired power plants, shut down old ones, and restricted vehicle usage in large cities. It also invested heavily in afforestation and reforestation programs, such as the Great Green Wall, which has led to the planting of over 35 billion trees across 12 provinces. 

The 2013 Air Pollution Action Plan has been China's most influential environmental policy to date, leading to significant improvements in air quality between 2013 and 2017. However, progress has not been uniform, with many cities still struggling to meet the World Health Organization's recommended annual average PM2.5 levels. 

China's commitment to the fight against air pollution continued with the introduction of the Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War in 2018. This plan expanded the scope of the 2013 Action Plan to cover all Chinese cities, setting ambitious reduction targets for PM2.5 levels and emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. 

The COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary improvements in air quality across China as lockdown measures reduced industrial activity and emissions. However, these gains are likely to be short-lived as the economy rebounds. 

Despite the ongoing challenges, China has made remarkable progress in addressing air pollution. Its efforts have resulted in substantial improvements in life expectancy, with the average citizen now expected to live 2.4 years longer if current pollution reduction trends continue. As China continues its battle against air pollution, the path towards clearer skies becomes increasingly attainable.

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