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European Voices on China
MERICS Blog

From worse to bad: a closer look at air quality in China

17 May 2017

By Maximilian Kärnfelt

Air pollution is a severe problem across China, but the levels of pollution vary greatly between regions. Though still a major challenge, air quality in urban centers like Beijing and Guangzhou is improving. Cities in the industrial heartland on the other hand have seen little to no progress.

The air in China is bad. Just how bad could be seen in a video that went viral in 2016. It showed a sickly looking yellowish cloud swallowing Beijing’s Dongzhimen business district. Another useful resource, which effectively illustrates China’s enormous pollution problem, is the World Air Quality Index’s visual map, which supplies real time measurements of air quality from measuring stations in thousands of cities across the world. The polluted air is a major cause of various types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases, all of which are on the rise in China.

The most concerning form of air pollution is known as PM 2.5. PM 2.5 refers to particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers. The particles are so small that they can enter the blood stream once inhaled. In 2016, the yearly average concentration of microparticles per cubic meter in Beijing was 72 µg/m2, roughly four times the average levels in Berlin. 

Figure 1

Progress in Beijing

Even as China’s bad air has attracted increasing media coverage around the world, the air quality in Beijing has started to improve over the past five years.

Data from Beijing show a decrease of PM 2.5 concentrations. Between 2011 and 2016, monthly PM 2.5 averages exhibit a clear downward trend (see figure 1). This is displayed by both Chinese and U.S. data, which align closely. During the same period, the annual PM 2.5 average levels decreased by 22 percent. The amount of full days when PM 2.5 levels exceeded 150 µg/m2 decreased from 21 to 10 percent.

Despite these significant improvements, Beijing still has a long way to go before it can get its average daily PM 2.5 concentrations down to the level of Berlin’s.

Figure 2

Remarkable improvement in Guangzhou

Out of all the cities where both American and Chinese data is available (Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang), Guangzhou has made the most headway in the fight against air pollution. PM 2.5 levels in the Southern Chinese city show a clear downward trend (figure 2), and decreased by an impressive 42 percent between 2012 and 2016. Given these improvements, air quality in Guangzhou is well on its way to be comparable with Western cities. 

Figure 3

Industrial heartland lags behind

In contrast to the recent improvements in some of these major cities, there has been little to no progress in other parts of China.

Figures 3 illustrates the monthly average PM 2.5 levels between 2014 and 2016 in Xi’an and Taiyuan, the capitals of Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, which are dominated by heavy industry and coal production. As can be seen from the trend line in the graphs, these cities made little to no progress in improving air quality.

There are at least three reasons for the lack of progress in cities like Xi’an and Taiyuan. One, their economies rely heavily on polluting industries. Two, conditions in these cities receive nowhere near the same amount of public attention as the major urban centers. Three, the central government in Beijing does not prioritize these cities.  Unless any of these conditions change, residents of these cities can expect to endure many more years of bad air.

China still has a long way to go

The recent improvements in air quality enjoyed by the citizens of major cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou show that Chinese policymakers are on the right track. China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan on Energy Development, which was published in 2017, promises further measures to combat air pollution. But the situation in the entire country is still dire, and it will likely take decades until the air quality in cities in the industrial heartlands can return to healthy and sustainable levels.

In the meantime, the effects of decades of heavy pollution will start to take their toll on public health. It will be an immense challenge for China’s leadership to simultaneously provide growth, improve the air quality and to provide sufficient care for the victims of pollution.

Image in preview: Nicolò Lazzati via Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

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The MERICS blog offers commentary and analysis on China’s political, economic and social development as well as its role in global affairs (and its relations with Europe).

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The  Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)is a Stiftung Mercatorinitiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China.

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