How China managed to consistently reduce PM 2.5 concentrations in recent years
The State of Global Air 2020 report released earlier this week shows that China is now among the top 30 countries for pollution exposure, but it still bears a huge health burden owing to demographic factors.Updated: Oct 25, 2020, 05:33 IST
China did not figure among the ten countries with the highest per capita PM 2.5 exposure in the world, a ranking India topped, a reality that experts say reinforces the need for the latter to take concerted, ambitious actions that may be the only way to address a persistent problem that affects the lives hundreds of millions of people.
The State of Global Air 2020 report released earlier this week shows that China is now among the top 30 countries for pollution exposure, but it still bears a huge health burden owing to demographic factors. China recorded 1.42 million premature deaths attributed to PM 2.5 exposure, compared to 980,000 in India in 2019, according to the report.
Together, the two countries accounted for 58% of worldwide deaths attributed to PM2.5 pollution in 2019. But there is a significant improvement in China’s air quality in the past 5 to 7 years, which is being captured now by satellite images. The average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in China ranged from 45 to 75 micrograms per cubic metres in 2019 compared to 75 to over 85 micrograms per cubic metres in India.
SOGA 2020 released by US-based Health Effects Institute and Global Burden of Disease project underlined that these improvements are mainly owing to meticulous enforcement of their five-year air pollution plan and targets. China implemented the first comprehensive five-year plan to improve air quality between 2013 and 2017 and subsequent plans have continued to address air pollution.
Between 2010 and 2019, outdoor PM2.5 levels in China decreased by 30%, largely due to actions undertaken in the past 5 to 7 years, including a shift from coal to gas in residential and industrial sectors and a reduction in industrial emissions. “However, there are fears that the recent economic slowdown and related increases in coal-burning capacity will continue to pose challenges with respect to air pollution control,” it said.
India released its National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in January 2019. NCAP doesn’t have a legal mandate but aims to achieve a 20% to 30% reduction in PM 2.5 (respirable, pollution particles) concentrations over 2017 annual levels in over a hundred cities. A big concern with India also is that Covid-19 pandemic could slow down the implementation of various national level initiatives, including a complete switch to BS VI vehicle emission standards and compliance of thermal power plants to emission norms by installing pollution control equipment.
Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a Finland based think tank which tracks China and India’s air pollution policies closely said that China’s environment ministry has already published draft air quality targets for this winter as air pollution started deteriorating in Beijing. Targets have been released for key control regions including Beijing, Tianjing and 26 surrounding cities; Yangtze Delta covering Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and parts of Anhui and other areas. India or the polluted region of Indo Gangetic Plains doesn’t have similar annual targets yet.
The backbone of China’s national action plan is a comprehensive monitoring network of approximately 1,500 air quality stations providing real-time data, said Sunil Dahiya, analyst at CREA, while adding that improving air quality and enforcing industrial emission standards is included in the performance evaluation of provincial and local government officials, which determines their career prospects.
“We need to control emissions at source, which means shifting our mode of transport to more public transport and NMT (Non-Motorised Transport), installing efficient pollution control technology at coal based power plants, reducing emissions from industrial operations, and shifting our energy sources from polluting fuels of past to decentralised sources of energy which are more sustainable, cleaner and economical in the form of renewable energy,” said Dahiya, adding that these need to be paired with a strong enforcement strategy.
“China’s annual PM2.5 average concentration was 47.7 micrograms per cubic metres in 2019. In the last few years, China has focused efforts on air pollution control. As a result, it has experienced a steady decline in exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter or PM2.5, a key measure of air pollution as well as use of solid fuels for cooking in households. However, recent reported increases in coal burning capacity have the potential to pose continuing challenges,” said Pallavi Pant, scientist at Health Effects Institute. Sagnik Dey, associate professor, IIT Delhi said “it’s impossible to reduce air pollution levels to WHO safety guidelines in a few years. It took the US 30 years to achieve that. But we have to be very focused and ambitious.”
WHAT CHINA DOES RIGHT
Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Professor in Economics at University of Chicago and Patrick Schwarz, pre-doctoral fellow at Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago documented in 2018 why China is winning the war on pollution in their analysis with the same title.
· China released its National Action Plan on Air Pollution Prevention and Control, a document similar to NCAP in 2013.
· In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution” at the opening of China’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress.
· Using daily data from more than 200 monitors across the country from 2013 to 2017, Greenstone’s team found most populated areas recorded improvements in air quality, ranging from 21 to 42%.
· If these reductions are sustained, the average Chinese citizen would see their life expectancy increase by 2.4 years relative to 2013, Greenstone said.
· China invested about $270 billion in the plan with focus on the densely populated Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, Pearl and Yangtze River Delta regions, respectively.
· Beijing, which had additionally set aside $120 billion to fight pollution had the target of reducing PM2.5 levels to below 60 micrograms per cubic metres, or a 34% decline from its 2013 levels.
· The plan pledged to meet these goals by reducing dependency on coal, controlling vehicle emissions, increasing renewable energy generation, and increasing enforcement of emissions standards.
• India has launched its National Clean Air Programme in 2019 which aims to achieve a 20% to 30% reduction in PM 2.5 (respirable, pollution particles) concentrations over 2017 annual levels in over a hundred cities
• India introduced BS VI fuel emission standards skipping BS V norms altogether.
• Most brick kilns in NCR states have switched low emission, high efficiency zig-zag technology
• Delhi has implemented a graded response action plan (GRAP) which ensures various emergency measures are taken when air pollution levels breach a certain threshold in the Capital
• India has introduced a number of other measures like subsidising LPG use under the Ujjwala scheme, promoting electric vehicles and various other city specific interventions
• According to Central Pollution Control Board, in Delhi there is around 20% reduction in annual PM 2.5 concentrations from 2016 to 2019 and 25% reduction in PM 10 concentrations.