Archive for June, 2013

what jumped out at me about the state council air quality announcement

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

The State Council this week released a major new set of air quality improvement measures. For broad summaries, see Xinhua and/or Reuters.

Two things about the announcement I want to note:

First, perhaps the most important sentence in the announcement – that was not mentioned in the Xinhua or Reuters stories – is this one: “加强人口密集地区和重点大城市PM2.5治理,构建对各省(区、市)的大气环境整治目标责任考核体系。” This means, “Strengthen PM2.5 control in dense population areas and key, large cities. Build a target responsibility and evaluation system for cities and provinces based on air quality remediation.”

This is a big deal, because it indicates for the first time that local leaders in China will be on the hook not just for vague, game-able targets like total emissions reductions, but actual improvements in measured ambient air quality. This would be similar to the US’ system of State Implementation Plans (SIPs). I predict this will have major implications by forcing provinces and cities to start doing real air quality planning in which they close the loop between emissions control measures and the air quality people are actually breathing.

Note: Beijing and some other cities already have nascent closed-loop planning requirements (for example, in the State Council 12th Five-Year Plan for Environmental Protection and MEP’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Key Region Air Pollution Control). But this recent State Council announcement appears to be much broader, with strong indication that ambient air quality improvements will be “binding targets” (约束性目标) for local-level officials.

The second thing I found noteworthy about the State Council announcement are these two sentences right towards the beginning: “会议确定了防治工作十条措施。一是减少污染物排放。” This means, “The meeting confirmed 10 measures to prevent and control [pollution]. The first is reduce pollution emissions.” I LOL’ed when I read this. I love the directness and the simplicity. The sentences that follow go on to detail (slightly) more specifics, but I love the initial, direct recognition that the fundamental problem is that emissions are just too high. This echoes an argument I made a few months ago on this blog and in the NYT Chinese edition: “The fundamental solution to China’s air pollution crisis is the rapid introduction of deep, permanent emissions reduction policies for all sources, especially power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles.”

confusing numbers on ambient air quality compliance in china

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the ICCT Staff Blog.

A few days ago, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection released their annual State of the Environment report. I was struck in particular by the following statistic: the air quality in 88.5% of China’s 113 “key environmental protection cities” meets China’s air quality standard. Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this number.

1) The first problem is that China’s current air quality standard, GB 3095-1996 (with revisions in 2000), is quite weak. Under this outdated standard, a city “in compliance” could still have an annual PM10 concentration as high as 100 ug/m^3 – a level 5 times higher than what’s recommended by the WHO. More importantly, the current standard doesn’t even include PM2.5 or ozone, the two ambient air pollutants of greatest long-term human health concern in urban megacities.

The good news is that last year, China adopted a new ambient air quality standard, GB 3095-2012. This new standard represents big progress in China by significantly tightening the acceptable limits for ambient air pollutant concentrations as well as adding standards for PM2.5 and ozone. Although the standard doesn’t enter into mandatory force until 2016, MEP’s 2012 annual report already reports compliance numbers according to the new standard. The numbers are bleak: just 23.9% of the 113 cities meet the new standard.

In other words, the introduction of the new standard causes the compliance rate of cities to drop from 88.5% to 23.9%. Although from a PR perspective this seems like a huge step backwards, I think MEP deserves tremendous credit for disclosing these data (and acknowledging the significant future challenges they imply).

2) The second problem with this statistic – % of cities in compliance – is that it ignores the significant variation in population among cities in China. Accordingly, it offers no indication of how many people in China are regularly breathing dangerous air – the key number we care about from a human health impacts perspective. The annual report doesn’t have a list of the cities along with their data, but it does include this graph, showing annual PM10 concentrations:

From this graph, it appears as though some really big cities – including Beijing (~20 million people), Tianjin (10 million), Chengdu (9 million), Xi’an (7 million), Urumqi (3 million), and Lanzhou (2.5 million) are not in compliance. (Plus, some of these may be far out of compliance – especially Urumqi, one of the few red dots on the map.) These six cities alone represent some 50 million people – similar to the populations of England or Spain – breathing air that doesn’t even meet China’s outdated, relatively loose air quality standard.

While this “% of cities in compliance” metric may be a useful gauge of general progress across the country, from a human health impacts perspective, a more meaningful statistic would be “urban population living in non-compliant areas.” The long-term goal of the Chinese government – indeed of all governments – should be to drive this number – evaluated according to global best practices ambient air quality standards – down to 0.