Beijing’s smog problem eases but challenges remain, says Greenpeace

Levels of toxic PM2.5 particles in China’s capital down 54 per cent in 2017

The Chinese government's efforts to combat smog in major cities is starting to pay off, with levels of the toxic PM2.5 particles in the capital down 54 per cent in the past year, according to a report by Greenpeace East Asia.

The improved air quality has been noticeable in the capital, with “blue sky days” coming much more frequently as the government required homes and factories to switch to cleaner natural gas from burning coal.

President Xi Jinping’s pledge to tackle pollution has seen coal-fired power stations and heavy industries near Beijing shut down and traffic restrictions have also had an effect.

Beijing’s air quality index – essential reading for city residents wondering about the smog situation day-by-day – registered at 29 on Thursday, a “good” reading for the city of 21 million.

However, the overall picture remains challenging, and concentrations of PM2.5 nationwide were down just 4.5 per cent in 2017, the lowest rate since the start of China’s “war on pollution”.

“China’s national air pollution action plan has brought massive reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks, but policies favouring coal and heavy industry are holding back progress,” said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Huang Wei.

Emissions fell most sharply in 2014 and 2015, but the improvement slowed last year because of an economic stimulus for heavy industry that spurred a rebound in coal, cement and steel, Greenpeace said.

The switch to natural gas contributed to heating problems at the start of what has been a bitterly cold winter. Some factories were forced to halt production and residential users who had not installed natural gas heaters were in some cases allowed to burn coal again temporarily.

The government is expected to continue the switch to natural gas this year.

Global player

Donald Trump's decision to take the US out of the Paris accord on climate change has seen China redouble its efforts to become a major player in environmental protection and renewable energy on the global stage.

Public unhappiness about smog – ozone exposure causes an estimated 12,000 premature deaths per year – is seen as a destabilising factor by the ruling Communist Party.

Annual PM2.5 averages in the provinces of Heilongjiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Guangdong rose by 10.4 per cent, 7.4 per cent, 4 per cent and 5.3 per cent respectively, Greenpeace said, caused by a surge in output from polluting industries such as metals and coal-fired power.

Separately, the Chinese environmental protection ministry said it would enforce new rules banning the import of foreign rubbish from March. This comes after China said in July that it would stop allowing shipments of rubbish from overseas.

The government also said that it would levy tax on businesses and public institutions that discharge pollutants from April 1st, after its environmental protection tax law came into effect at the start of the year.