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    China Looks to Build on Air Pollution Reduction Success With New Action Plan

    The third-ever national-level plan to improve air quality introduces clear targets for the country’s most polluting regions.

    China’s new plan to improve air quality is a major development in the country’s continuing “battle for blue skies,” experts say, as economic activity recovers following the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Under the action plan unveiled last Thursday by the State Council — China’s equivalent to a Cabinet — cities in China are to reduce PM2.5 density by 10% by 2025 compared to 2020 levels, and to keep the number of days each year with heavy pollution to 1% or less. 

    Cities will be set targets determined by their level of air quality in 2020, under the concept of “differentiated management,” said Wan Wei, China program director at NGO Clean Air Asia. 

    “The last decade has not only seen a significant improvement in air quality, but also an overall upgrade of the air quality management system,” Wan told Sixth Tone. 

    The plan focuses on China’s major clusters of economic activity, such as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta region, and the inland Fenwei Plain, China’s major energy and heavy industry base with high coal consumption. 

    The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region has been set a more ambitious target of reducing PM2.5 density by 20%. Beijing in particular is tasked with keeping PM2.5 concentrations below 32 micrograms per cubic meter, below the national second-tier standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. 

    Though air quality has improved significantly in Beijing over the past decade, the capital city and surrounding provinces still regularly see smog days, and PM2.5 density levels still far exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended levels

    “In 2022, more than a quarter of the country’s cities still failed to meet the PM2.5 standard, and heavy pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region was frequent,” an official at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment told state-run media Legal Daily on Dec. 1. 

    The action plan, which proposes curbs on projects with high energy consumption and emissions, such as in the coal and steel industries, is China’s third-ever national-level action plan for improving air quality. 

    The first two plans, released in 2013 and 2018, were successful in lowering China’s average PM2.5 density by 57% and the number of heavy pollution days by 93% from 2013 to 2022.

    “We must declare war on pollution as resolutely as we do on poverty,” then-Premier Li Keqiang said in 2014.  

    Bao Cunkuan, a professor at Fudan University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, said that improving air quality has risen to the top of the government’s priorities over the years due to public demand. 

    “We have now entered a new phase, which is higher quality pollution governance. Reducing pollution, cutting carbon emissions, expanding green development, and pursuing economic growth are being integrated,” Bao told Sixth Tone.

    The latest action plan comes as China is seeing air pollution levels rebound in recent years. As of October, the average percentage of days with “good” air quality in cities was 85.1% this year, down 1.2 percentage points year-on-year, while the percentage of heavy pollution days and average PM2.5 density both increased, according to official data.

    In July, Minister of Ecology and Environment Huang Runqiu blamed the trend this year on adverse meteorological conditions, as well as a rise in emissions following the rebound in economic activity after the pandemic.

    Editor: Vincent Chow. 

    (Header image: IC)