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A smoggy day in Handan, Hebei province, China’s biggest steelmaking region. Photo: Reuters

Pollution in northern China up 16 per cent in January as industrial activity spikes

  • Rising emissions of lung-damaging smog last month suggest some provinces may struggle to meet annual targets
  • China is trying to balance environmental demands with need to drive economic growth

Air pollution in January in 39 major northern Chinese cities rose 16 per cent from a year earlier, according to official figures, with surging industrial activity making it increasingly unlikely they will meet their winter emissions targets.

Average concentrations of the small, hazardous particles known as PM2.5 in two major Chinese emissions control zones climbed to 114 micrograms per cubic metre, according to a Reuters analysis of official data.

China has vowed not to ease up when it comes to fighting pollution even amid an economic slump, but rising emissions of lung-damaging smog last month suggest some provinces could struggle to balance that goal with an upturn in industrial production.

“The reasons for the increases in PM2.5 levels are not hard to identify,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy analyst with environmental group Greenpeace, who said that steel, thermal power and cement production surged throughout the region in the final quarter of 2018.

“The outsourcing of industrial output that took place last winter in order for Beijing to hit its air quality targets was reversed this winter, driving air pollution levels up in the region while the rest of the country has seen improvements.”

China’s smog battle losing ‘momentum’ in some regions, minister says

The worst performer over the month was the coal city of Linfen in Shanxi province, which saw average PM2.5 levels of 174mcg, up 23 per cent from a year earlier. Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, China’s biggest steelmaking region, also saw emissions rise 30 per cent to 144mcg.

China’s official air quality standard is 35mcg, while the World Health Organisation recommends an annual average of no more than 10mcg.

Over the three months beginning in November, when coal-fired heating systems are switched on throughout northern China, average PM2.5 in the 39 cities reached 93.5mcg, up 12 per cent on the year.

Pollution warnings as cities in northeast China shrouded in smog

Anyang, a coal and steel producing city in Henan province, was the worst performer over that period, with average concentrations at 124mcg, up 27 per cent. Authorities there blamed the poor performance this winter on “unfavourable weather”.

China’s environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment but senior official Liu Bingjiang said last month that local governments would be held fully accountable for any failures, regardless of the weather.

Most of the cities are aiming to cut pollution by 3 per cent from 12 months earlier, far lower than last year’s target of about 15 per cent. The compliance period also began a month earlier in October, when pollution is normally much lower. But they are still struggling to meet targets.

“With four months of the October-March period passed and two to go, it would take a very steep 20 per cent reduction in February-March to get to the 3 per cent reduction target,” Myllyvirta said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pollution up by 16pc as industrial activity rises