China misses air quality goals as economy takes priority, report says

By Thomson Reuters Apr 30, 2024 | 6:09 AM

By Colleen Howe

BEIJING (Reuters) – Half of the Chinese cities targeted by the government for air quality improvements have missed their targets as the country prioritised strengthening the economy over cutting pollutants, research by a non-profit research organisation found.

China typically releases a winter air quality plan every autumn, because coal heating and atmospheric conditions lead to dirtier air during the winter months.

But the plan was not enforced in 2022, according to the Finnish-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and was only reintroduced part-way through the 2023-2024 winter season.

The environment ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

In Q4 2023, half of the cities targeted by the December air quality action plan missed their targets to cut concentrations of hazardous particles, known as PM2.5, while in Q1 2024 41% of the cities overshot the limits.

In the 2022-2023 winter season, PM2.5 levels jumped 4.7% year-on-year and only fell back 1.6% in the 2023-2024 winter, the report said.

The December 2023 plan by China’s State Council, or cabinet, focused on reducing coal consumption in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta and northern China’s Shanxi and Shaanxi.

Decreases in cement and coal production lowered emissions in Q1 2024, CREA said, but increases in coal-fired power, non-ferrous metals and petrochemicals offset part of that benefit. Industrial emissions make up around 62% of particulate emissions, the report said, according to 2022 data.

Overall, the report found that weather changes contributed more to pollution improvements than emissions changes. Pollution levels are affected by atmospheric conditions including rainfall, air temperature and pressure, and wind.

Even if met, China’s goals are below air quality targets recommended by the World Health Organization, but CREA has previously said they would still be enough to prevent as many as 180,000 pollution-related deaths by 2025.

(Reporting by Colleen Howe; editing by Barbara Lewis)