China winter smog targets not enough to offset last year’s surge

Flexibility in anti-smog measures last year led to higher pollution amid concerns weakening economy undermining resolve.

China smog
A woman in Beijing during heavy smog last November; China's winter smog targets for 2019 will not be enough to offset last year's increase in pollution, according to government data [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

A new winter plan to curb emissions in northern China will not be enough to reverse last year’s sharp increase in dangerous pollution, official data shows, raising concerns that a weakening economy is eroding Beijing’s resolve to tackle dirty air.

In an action plan for October 2019 to March 2020, China said 28 smog-prone northern cities, including the capital Beijing, would have to curb emissions of lung-damaging small particles known as PM2.5 by an average of 4 percent from a year ago.

The particles are a major component of the smog that engulfs China’s northern regions during the winter as people turn to coal-fired heating systems.

However, the targeted decrease is 1.5 percentage points lower than an earlier draft, and would not be enough to reverse a 6.5 percent surge throughout the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region over the same period last year.

Pollution jumped last year even as authorities targeted a cut of 3 percent, as warmer weather and an increase in industrial activity after regions were given more flexibility to devise their own anti-smog measures derailed efforts to ensure cleaner skies.

This year’s lowered ambitions mean that as many as 15 of the 28 cities could have higher levels of smog than two years ago, even if they met their targets, said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst with Greenpeace.

An environment ministry official acknowledged last week that China’s pollution situation was still “serious”, with PM2.5 in the region rising 1.9 percent in the first three quarters.

China smog
A man on a street in Tianjin last winter after the city issued a yellow alert for air pollution [Stringer/Reuters]

Missing targets

In setting this year’s targets, China had to consider “maintaining stability” as well as “actual working conditions” in each location, the official said in a statement, adding that there were risks the goals would not be met.

Only four of the 28 cities – Beijing, Handan, Cangzhou and Jining – met targets last winter, official data showed.

PM2.5 levels in Anyang, China’s most polluted city last winter, soared 13.7 percent last year. It is targeting a 6.5 percent cut this year.

Nearby Puyang will target a 6 percent fall this year, even though its average PM2.5 surged more than 20 percent a year ago.

The environment ministry has been at pains to say China’s “war on pollution” would not be affected by a slowing economy, with local governments no longer judged merely on crude economic growth.

But there have already been signs of compromise, with Premier Li Keqiang saying earlier this month that China remains dependent on coal and will encourage clean and green mining.

China’s coal imports are also set to rise more than 10 percent this year, analysts said.

“The lower air quality targets seem to reflect changed priorities,” said Myllyvirta. “The policymakers have let smokestack industries rebound, even if it means slowing progress on air quality.”

Source: Reuters