China took steps last week to curb worsening air pollution around the country. New statutes issued by the State Council and Ministry of Environmental Protection require most regions around the country to lower emissions levels immediately and continue to do so over the next several years — in some places drastically.
The new requirements were issued in a new draft of the Air Pollution and Prevention Action Plan (大气污染防治行动计划). The original document was released in September 2013 and then signed by government representatives from every province and municipality affected by the regulations on January 10.
Hainan and Yunnan provinces were joined by Tibet Autonomous Region in avoiding any specific goals, perhaps due to reputations as relatively unbefouled regions. Instead, the three territories are required to make "continuous improvements" in air quality in the coming years.
At issue are tiny particulates, especially airborne pollutants measuring less than 10 microns in width, which are often generated during industrial manufacturing and the burning of fossil fuels. In cities where air pollution has become so severe visibility is sometimes limited to a matter of a few dozen meters, even smaller particulates measuring less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) are the target.
Eleven regions, including the mega-cities of Beijing and Tianjin, are required to show a 25 percent reduction in PM2.5 pollution by the end of 2014. Those two cities, in combination with Hebei province, reportedly burn 43 percent of the country's coal.
All areas of China assigned specific reduction goals are also expected to continually make the same decreases on an annual basis until 2017. The provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong and Shanxi, as well as the municipality of Shanghai, were all set 20 percent reduction targets, while others were given lesser goals, some as low as five percent.
Governments of the provinces and municipalities given targets by the Ministry of Environmental Protection are expected to develop and implement their own systems for lessening air pollution. Chinese state media has not explained what, if any, specific penalties can be expected for regions that fail to properly curb air pollution. However, a slightly ominous quote from Xinhua may offer some clues:
The State Council will conduct a public reprimand with the organizational offices, supervising departments and interview the people in charge...[and then] put forward rectification options.
The new statutes are perhaps a response to several embarrassing episodes in 2013 — dubbed Airpocalypse by some — where the air in some northeastern Chinese cities became dirtier than existing metrics could measure. Not simply an issue of aesthetics, high levels of PM2.5 particulates in the air have been linked to severe respiratory health issues, lung cancer and birth defects.
A report released January 13 by Greenpeace ranked 74 of the largest Chinese cities by their average annual PM2.5 density. Several of the worst urban areas were clustered in the country's northeast, with Xingtai (邢台) in Hebei province garnering the worst score. Kunming placed sixty-ninth on the list and Haikou, capital of Hainan province, was rated as having the cleanest air.