massive new state council air pollution control plan

China’s State Council today released a massive new air pollution control plan, the latest in a string of Chinese government actions (and promises of future actions) following January’s “airpocalypse.” This is certainly the highest profile and most wide-reaching plan we’ve seen so far, underscoring the attention being paid at the highest levels of government to improving air quality throughout the country.

I tweeted my thoughts tonight as I read the plan, but before I go to bed I’ll summarize a few highlights here.

First let me say that I have little expertise on topics beyond motor vehicles and ambient air quality monitoring. Some of the initial reporting (Reuters, WSJ) has focused on the plan’s announcements related to power generation, coal consumption, industrial emissions, etc. I’m not commenting on those here not because they aren’t important, but just because that’s not what I work on.

That having been said, here’s what really impresses me about the plan:

Major focus on regional coordination to improve air quality across broad air basins as opposed to working city-by-city. The three big regions mentioned repeatedly in the plan are the greater Beijing region (including Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei), the Yangtze River Delta region (including Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu), and the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong. This is great news because, as I have noted, air pollution is absolutely a regional problem that requires regional solutions. Nice to see this being acknowledged by the State Council in such a foundational way.

– The plan establishes a system of binding ambient air quality improvement targets. I have previously written about how this is important for closing the loop between emissions and the air people are actually breathing, as well as for keeping officials accountable for environmental improvements that are tied to human health benefits. The specific targets in the plan are 10% reductions in PM10 concentrations for most cities, and 25%/20%/15% PM2.5 reduction goals for the greater BJ/YRD/PRD regions. The goals are all 2017 goals vs. 2012 baseline. There are some nice comments in the plan about the investigation and disciplining of officials who fail to meet the goals (though no specifics on penalties).

– Specific to motor vehicles, the plan reinforces the existing national fuel quality improvement timelines, but also establishes a new goal that China 5 gasoline and diesel (10ppm sulfur content) must be supplied to the three key regions by the end of 2015.

– The plan proposes massive scrappage goals for older, high polluting vehicles. China has hinted several times at goals to scrap all yellow-label vehicles (defined as Euro 0 gasoline and Euro 0, I, II diesel vehicles), but I’ve never seen such a clear goal codified before. The plan states that all YLVs nationwide should be scrapped by 2017. For the record, China had like 15 million yellow-label vehicles in 2011. That’s a huge number of vehicles to scrap. The plan also calls for “basically” scrapping all YLVs in the three key regions (5 million vehicles) by 2015, and scrapping all pre-2005 operational YLVs nationwide by 2015.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, I wasn’t uniformly delighted by the plan. I am less than impressed by the following:

– I’m not sure why the plan sets PM10 reduction targets (as opposed to PM2.5) for some cities. PM2.5 is harder to control, but also more dangerous than PM2.5. China has new PM2.5 air quality standards and is completing a nationwide PM2.5 ambient air quality monitoring network, so why not jump straight to evaluation metrics based on PM2.5?

I’m deeply disappointed that the plan doesn’t call for any new vehicle emission standards. In this respect, the plan is much weaker than the plan Beijing released less than two weeks ago. Fuel quality improvements are critical because they enable more stringent standards to take effect. Scrappage programs are great, but they are most effective when the replacement vehicles are as clean as possible. Why would the State Council release such a comprehensive plan that doesn’t include any mention of upgrading vehicle emission standards? It is a strange and glaring omission to me.

Final note: here’s what I wish it said about vehicle emission standards: “taking advantage of the upgraded fuel supplies, China VI vehicle emission standards will be implemented in the three key regions in 2015, and nationwide in 2018.”

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