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People's Republic of China - Environment

In recent years, air pollution has caused more than 1 million deaths per year in China, making it a major focus of public health efforts. More intense extreme events are projected under future climate change. However, the impacts of climate extremes on future air quality and associated health implications are not well recognized and are rarely quantified in China, with an enormous health burden from air pollution. Future climate change is likely to exacerbate air pollution mortality, largely influenced by the more intense extreme events such as stagnation events and heat waves.

Outdoor air pollution is one of China’s most serious environmental problems. Coal is still the major source of energy, constituting about 75% of all energy sources. Consequently, air pollution in China predominantly consists of coal smoke, with suspended particulate matter (PM) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) as the principal air pollutants. In large cities, however, with the rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles, air pollution has gradually changed from the conventional coal combustion type to the mixed coal combustion/motor vehicle emission type. Currently, inhalable particles (PM < 10 µm in aerodynamic diameter; PM10), SO2, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are the criteria pollutants of concern in China. Generally, PM levels in cities in the north are higher than those in the south, whereas SO2 and NO2 levels do not differ much.

As air quality hits record lows, the Chinese language has acquired a new word: “meter-busting”. Levels of pollutant PM2.5 have soared so high that monitoring equipment can no longer cope. Under new emergency response measures, in January 2013 Beijing issued its first ever “orange” smog warning, indicating visibility at less than 200 meters. For a time, PM2.5 levels in most parts of the city were over 700 micrograms per cubic meter.

Emissions that exceed the environmental capacity is the primary cause of air pollution in north China. The coal-based energy structure and the highway-based transportation structure in Beijing, the neighboring port city of Tianjin and Hebei Province have led to a coal consumption per unit area of four times the national average. The monthly emissions of main pollutants such as PM2.5, black carbon and organic carbon in the heating period of autumn and winter is up to four times compared to other seasons in the region. The rapid accumulation of pollution caused by unfavorable meteorological conditions is another cause of pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

Beijing has actually done better than most cities on replacing coal with cleaner substitutes. In 2012, the city cut its coal consumption by 700,000 tonnes. The 2008 Olympics were an effective spur. When it bid for the Games in 2001, the Chinese government promised that air quality would be good. Traffic restriction measures put in place then, and which continue today, gave many hope of seeing more “blue-sky days” ahead. The data shows that during the Olympics, Beijing’s air quality was consistently up to standard, reaching Class I – the top grade – on 50% of days. This was the best it had been for a decade. Beijing has some of the strictest vehicle emissions and fuel standards in China. On 01 August 2012, cleaner diesel fuel was made available across the city in preparation for the fifth phase of a programme to cut the impacts of car exhausts.

Vehicle emissions, especially those come from heavy-duty diesel trucks, remain the primary source of PM2.5 in Beijing and its surrounding areas. Beijing has about 240,000 heavy-duty diesel trucks and coaches, accounting for less than 4 percent of the capital's over 6.4 million motor vehicles. But they contribute to over 70 percent and 90 percent, respectively, of all the nitrogen oxide and particulate matters emissions from the city's motor vehicles.

The government is facing an uneasy balancing act: it must handle the public's environmental concerns but avoid taking action that would slow growth. President Xi Jinping warned in 2013 that officials will be held responsible for life if projects they approved are found to harm the environment. In 2015, China established the mechanism of environmental inspection. As of December 2017, over 18,000 government officials were penalized for their failure to control pollution after inspection, and 234 Party and government leaders have been punished in 2019's environmental inspection.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2021 17:32:04 ZULU