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China pollution

Smog on the rise in northern China as winter looms, Greenpeace says

  • Upcoming heating season will test whether local governments can meet lower pollution cuts – and what punishment they will face if they miss targets
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 1:11pm

Smog in northern China worsened in October and November compared to a year earlier, environmental group Greenpeace said on Thursday, as the government eases pressure to improve air quality amid slowing economic growth.

Greenpeace said its study of official data showed the level of small, breathable particulate matter known as PM2.5 in the capital Beijing was 10 per cent worse over the two months than the same period in 2017.

Those months are closely watched as they mark the lead-up to winter, when heating systems are switched on.

China last year drew up a groundbreaking plan to cut PM2.5 emissions by at least 15 per cent year on year in 28 smog-prone northern Chinese cities. All but three met their targets over the period.

But in October and November this year, PM2.5 in the same 28 cities rose 4 per cent year on year, Greenpeace said.

Heavy smog expected to blanket 79 cities across north, east of China

The cities need to cut PM2.5 by a less onerous rate of 3 per cent this winter from November, and China has given them the freedom to set their own abatement plans. However, the data shows they could struggle to meet these targets.

“This winter is a test of whether delegating the responsibility for emissions cuts to local governments works – and what happens now that the targets are at risk of being missed,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, energy analyst with Greenpeace, who studied the Chinese data.

The environment ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment, but Environment Minister Li Ganjie urged local officials in a speech earlier this year not to drop their guard when it came to controlling pollution this winter.

Heavy smog brings travel chaos to eastern China

However, the ministry has warned that low wind speeds and relatively high temperatures over winter compared to last year will make it harder to disperse pollution in some regions.

“If this winter sees more average conditions, as is likely by definition and as has been the case for the past few weeks, you need to cut emissions by much more than 3 per cent to hit the [air quality] target,” Myllyvirta said.

A total of 79 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the coal-rich Fenwei plain and the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai are subject to official pollution control targets this winter.

A Reuters analysis of official data showed average PM2.5 levels in the 79 cities stood at 69.8 micrograms in November, up 14 per cent from the same period last year and double China’s air quality standard of 35 micrograms.

The 28 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region saw average emissions rise 47 per cent to 90.8 micrograms, the analysis showed, while six cities in central China’s Henan province saw concentrations double from last year.

The World Health Organisation recommends levels of no more than 10 micrograms.