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Smoke billows from a chimney as workers leave a factory in Gaoyi county, near Shijiazhuang, capital of northern China’s Hebei province and the country’s most polluted city in terms of PM2.5 readings in 2017. Photo: Reuters

Northern China’s Hebei province home to six of 10 smoggiest cities, environment ministry says

Provincial capital Shijiazhuang saw the highest average reading in all of China last year for harmful PM2.5 particles

Six of China’s 10 smoggiest cities in 2017 were in the northern province of Hebei, unchanged from the previous year, despite a campaign to improve air quality during the winter when smog levels peak, the environment ministry said on Thursday.

Hebei, the country’s biggest steel producing region, was part of a special six-month crackdown aimed at reducing smog build-ups in the cold season, which is when coal consumption traditionally surges to run boilers for heating, resulting in an increase in harmful air pollutants.

According to figures published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Hebei’s provincial capital Shijiazhuang saw the highest average reading in all of China last year of particulate matter with a width of 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, which is easily inhaled into the lungs to cause respiratory damage.

Hebei’s smog levels also have an effect on China’s capital Beijing as the province surrounds the city.

Also among China’s 10 worst performing cities were the Hebei cities of Tangshan – the world’s biggest steel producing city – Handan, Xingtai, Baoding and Hengshui.

However, in December alone, only four Hebei cities were included in the top 10, suggesting the winter crackdown on emissions from industry, coal and transport had a significant impact.

Hebei as a whole saw PM2.5 concentrations hit 65 micrograms per cubic metre last year, down 7.1 per cent from 2016. It has promised to cut the figure by a further 14 per cent by 2020.

Gao Jianmin, head of the provincial environmental bureau, said earlier this month that the province would strive this year to remove Shijiazhuang, Hengshui and Tangshan from the top 10 worst performer list.

Overall, average PM2.5 readings in 338 monitored cities across China reached 43 micrograms per cubic metre in 2017, down 6.5 per cent from the previous year, according to the ministry’s figures.

According to research published by environmental group Greenpeace last week, Beijing, Hebei and other parts of northern China saw dramatic improvements in air quality over the winter as a result of the crackdown as well as more favourable weather, but progress stalled in other parts of the country.

Greenpeace estimated that nationwide PM2.5 emissions fell 4.5 per cent, lower than the official figure and the smallest decline since 2013.

China’s official PM2.5 standard is 35 micrograms, while the World Heath Organisation recommends levels of no more than 10.