Archive for January, 2014

2014: first tests of China’s major air quality improvement plans

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Happy New Year!

I was asked to contribute a short essay to China Dialogue’s New Year’s “Predictions for China’s environment in 2014.”

They’ve given me permission to re-post here. Originally posted, in English and Chinese, at China Dialogue:

2013 will be remembered in China as the year of the “airpocalypses.” Smoggy skies throughout the year (e.g. Beijing in January, Harbin in October, Shanghai in December) drew unprecedented attention from the media, the general public, and China’s leaders. The Chinese government responded by issuing a surprisingly aggressive series of new plans and regulatory actions. The most important of these, September’s State Council Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, establishes new binding air quality improvement targets for cities, mandates a host of specific pollution control actions such as fuel quality improvements and regional coal caps, requires cities to adopt emergency pollution response plans, and much more. Some provinces and cities also issued their own, detailed set of additional directives; Beijing famously “declared war” on PM2.5 before releasing its 84-point plan.

If 2013 was the year so many government air quality plans were forged, 2014 is the year they will begin to be wielded. A few examples from the transport sector specifically: starting January 1st, the nationwide implementation of a cleaner gasoline standard means that all cars will emit less pollution; a parallel cleaner diesel standard will follow by the end of the year. In Beijing, new limits on the population of vehicles will make winning the city’s notorious license plate lottery even more unlikely, while thousands of electric and gas-fuelled buses and municipal trucks will begin to hit the streets. 2015 and beyond will bring even more aggressive goals, especially sweeping new regulations and targets for the greater Beijing, Yangtze River Delta, and Pearl River Delta regions.

Of course, ultimate success will be evaluated not by how many directives the government issues – or even on how well they are implemented and enforced – but rather on actual, measured improvements in the air people are breathing. China’s recently completed, extensive air quality monitoring network publicly broadcasts hourly, real-time air quality data, data that will be watched closely by the media, public, and government alike. Unfortunately, even with China’s new, comprehensive air quality improvement plans, solving the air pollution crisis will likely take many years. Whether China’s public has the patience to endure a few more years of poor air quality (and inevitable, occasional airpocalypses) while the lengthy clean-up unfolds may be just as interesting to watch in 2014 as the plans and policies themselves.