Beijing makes major strides on air quality

Country's steps reduce PM2.5 levels by 40%, lift life expectancy: report

Aerial photo taken on Aug 23, 2021 shows the scenery of Saihanba forest farm in North China's Hebei province. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

China has cut harmful airborne particulates by nearly 40 percent since it launched a massive antipollution campaign in 2013, achieving a feat that took the US and Europe several decades, the University of Chicago said in its latest Air Quality Life Index report.

"Although the challenge of reducing air pollution across the world may seem daunting, China is an important beacon of progress," said the report published Tuesday. It pointed out that China had allocated substantial public resources to combating pollution when the issue reached its highest levels in 2013.

"Since 2013, particulate pollution in China has declined by 39.6 percent, adding about two years onto average life expectancy, assuming these reductions are sustained," according to the report, whose authors include Michael Greenstone of the university's Energy Policy Institute.

In the section "China's war against pollution continues successfully", the researchers analyzed how the strict public policies, as laid out in the National Air Quality Action Plan in late 2013, cut the number of cars in large Chinese cities, reduced iron-and steelmaking capacity in the industrial sector, and banned new coal-fired power plants in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and other areas.

At the 2014 annual national legislative meeting, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a "war against pollution".

"Seven years after the start of China's 'war against pollution', the impacts (were) persistent and tangible," the researchers wrote. "Thanks to these, and other, strict pollution policies, China's overall (country level) PM2.5 average is in compliance with the national standard."

The PM2.5 reading is a gauge monitoring small airborne particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, which can penetrate deep into a person's lungs.

China's PM2.5 levels fell from 85 to 38 micrograms per cubic meter in just seven years, a 55 percent drop, the report said.

Such a drastic decline in air pollution will pay off, according to the Air Quality Life Index, which converts air pollution concentrations into their impact on life expectancy.

In Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, the report suggests that the average person could expect to live 4.6 years and 2.2 years longer respectively thanks to the steady decline in air pollution since 2013, provided the reduction is permanent.

To put China's progress into context, the researchers wrote that global average pollution has fallen since 2013, and that is due "entirely" to China's steep decline in pollution.

In its February report, the Air Quality Life Index noted that it took more than two decades and multiple recessions for the United States to reduce its average air pollution by 40 percent, a feat that China achieved in just seven years while its economy continued to grow "at a good clip".

"China's success in reducing pollution is a strong indication of the opportunities that could lie ahead for other nations if they were to impose strong pollution policies, as some are beginning to do," the researchers wrote.

Market-based measures

In discussing how China can meet and sustain further pollution reductions, the researchers said that in addition to command and control measures to swiftly reduce pollution, China has an opportunity to place more emphasis on market-based approaches, to cut pollution at a lower cost and without intense stakeholder pressure.

Successful approaches include the US sulfur dioxide emissions trading program, which reduced pollution by 40 percent between 1980 and 2003, with the program's benefits exceeding its costs by a 40-to-1 ratio, according to the report.

It pointed out that China's national carbon trading market argues well for the next phase of the country's "war against pollution".

The carbon trading market, introduced in July last year, will be the largest such market in the world upon completion. It positions the country well for the adoption of a particulate pollution and/or sulfur dioxide market, according to the report.