Government Measures taken for Air Pollution: China

The below article talks about air pollution, air quality, some mitigation startegies implemented by the government of China, to address air pollution concers, along with some frequently asked questions about air pollution, air quality, and mitigation strategies. 

Are there government measures in China, taken to address air pollution?

Yes, China has taken specific measures to address the air pollution concerns that have risen over the years. Measures undertaken over the years are multi-pronged, and are aimed to address air pollution through different sectors. Some measures undertaken include phasing out old vehicles, setting up strict environmental regulatory frameworks, setting up clean energy frameworks, etc. 


Chinese cities hold some of the ranks amongst the most polluted cities in the world. A 2015 study conducted by the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning found out that particulate matter emissions were 80% over the recommended global standards, nitrogen oxide was 70% over the global standards, and sulfur dioxide was 50% over the globally set standards (WB, 2020). Previously, China had taken immense efforts to address air pollution concernce during their preparation towards Beijing Olympics, while they made significant changes in those months, air pollution rose to previous levels following the Olympics. 

With air pollution causing severe health impacts on citizens, the government started taking notice of environmental deterioration caused by air pollution, and thus started the work needed for mitigation strategies. China has made significant improvements in comparison to their past emission levels, it still has a long way to go, especially in terms of re-routing financial schemes to meet environmental needs. However, China has been quick to make changes and implement the needed actions to ensure that it meets these targets. For example, In a matter of 5 years, particulate matter pollution in Beijin fell brom 35% to 25%, by 2017 (Kebin H., 2019). 

The 4 stages of air pollution control policies in China

Stage 1: Until 2005

By 2005, the chinese government had several trials of reducing industrial smoke and dust, and in an effort to curb air pollution, there were implementations of very basic systems of air pollution control, as was stated in their Law on the Prevention and Control of Athmospheric Pollution, that was issued in the state by 1987. The system that was set up implied that local governments were responsible for the emissions within their jurisdiction, it mandated concentration levels focusing on the industrial activities that were coal powered, measures that set forward various framework that addressed concerns of standards/ pollution fees/ treatment startegies for emissions/ requirements for control, and the mitigation strategy which stated that if the law was violated, fines would be applied to the polluter. The fee would not cross 500,000 RMB, and did not amount to much in terms of being able to address the pollution that could be potentially caused. This strategy over the years, experienced a few changes, but saw no substantial reform that would change how the law was enforced. 

While the strategy enforced was important, it as inherently flawed in many dimensions, especially considering the fact that even by 2005, air pollution was not a “major” concern in the country, and was not seen as an urgent social problem that needed to be addressed. The strategy imposed was focused more on the broad curbing of air pollution rather than addressing specific industries or sources that were contributing to these issues. The strategy lacked in clearly portraying the environmental rights of their citizens and failed to show environment in its own agency or capacity. Environmental resources and concerns that rose along, were viewed in terms of commodified value, and environmental health was not seen important in terms of creating holistic balance and growth, along with human health and social welfare. 

While the state did enforce a polluter pays principle framework into their air pollution strategies, the capping off of the amount for the fine to the respective stakeholder made it easier for polluting actors to create large-scale destructive activities and pay a small amount to resolve the matter through the “judicial” system in the state. This caused inefficiencies in the system and there was a lack of coordination in terms of the damage created and the mitigation enforced. It needs to be noted that the state had not still set in motion the monitoring and regulatory frameworks, which made the set emissions standards ineffective as there were no authority that would monitor these standards to identify stakeholders that contributed towards air pollution in the country. Most data that did exist were estimated concentrations put forward by the environment agency, in very broad terms. 

A lack of proper authority that monitored the specific strategy set in place, seriously threatened the credibility of the strategy as well as off the laws and standards that were put forth through the strategy. While an accused stakeholder would have the legal liability to pay for the damage created, they would be able to easily resolve this by paying whatever amount was fined, and adopt “regulations” that may or may not need to be implemented. As mentioned before, there was no authority that made sure there were new implementations taken up by the responsible stakeholder. 

It was under this term that Beijing, a city that had notoriously high air pollutant concentrations used political methods to address air pollution concerns. Unlike other cities in the State, Beijing leveraged the chinese central government located in the city to address their financial needs and used this support to make immediate changes in terms of keeping air pollution the top priority of concerns, and they adopted several measures including substituting coal for clean sources of energy, enforcement of desulfurization, dust control and collection, combustion techniques to trap specific pollutants, increasing green cover in the city, emission standards for new vehicles, higher quality of fuel usage, phasing out older vehicles, etc. While the rapid rates of urbanization in the city did not provide Beijing with an opportunity to produce the kind of results that could have been, the efforts were not in vain as certain readings showed that vehicle exhaust control did reduce nitrogen and particulate matter concentration in the city. 

Stage 2: 2006 – 2012

Based on various studies and research conducted in the previous term, it was suggested to state actors that unless there was a significant instituitional reform in the state, there would always be an implementation gap with respect to any environmental framework introduced. Even with this statement, the state continued to set out new policies for air pollution, without any much change in terms of institutional actors responsible for these enforcements. Policies introduced included ones that aimed to address total emission controls of sulfur dioxide, energy savings policy, etc. National targets hade been decomposed over the years, which led to provinces just meeting the very basic requirements. By 2011, through the state’s 12th five-year plan, these targets were picked up, modified, extended, and maintained.

However, studies show that while initiatives were now being enforced more strictly, it wasn’t producing the kind of results it should be. Which led to several questions rising about the measures that were introduced, where it was being introduced, if it was done so in an effective manner, etc. Evaluations following these concerns showed that local province leaders were prone to modifying data in order to move further in their political career, and that the centralization of data from 2007 was the majority reason why any provincial measures were being enforced, in the first place. In order to address these concerns, state actors set up new data management centers that considerably reduced the space for local actors to modify the data, as noe local actors only collected the data and provided it to the agencies, and any form of interpretation were made by higher ranks that were unbiased in the matter, thus reducing false modifications of data or interpretations. 

While this term saw significant improvements in policy enforcement, this was when state actors recognised that addressing a specific pollutant such as sulfur dioxide would not suffice in terms of addressing air pollution, and that they needed more holistic approaches. IT was know that the state actors recognised that frameworks needed to address primary and secondary pollutants with respective pollutant concentration standards, which would provide for a stricter basis on which frameworks would be enforced upon. It was at this time that state actors also started noticing that transmission of pollution rates through province boundaries, would usually offset any pollution data collected over time, depending on the weather and other meteorological conditions in the area. 

Stage 3: 2013 – 2017 (China National Action Plan on Air Pollution Prevention and Control)

Following the PM2.5 crisis in the beginning of 2013, state actors established an action plan by September 2013 that aimed to address pollution at its source, and reported that they would no longer look at environmental protection in terms of cleaning up what has been polluted, rather that it would be ensuring that there isn’t any more pollution. Under the action plan, the air quality goals were as follows:

(Source: Jin Y., 2016)

By 2017, the urban concentration of PM10 shall decrease by 10% compared with 2012; annual number of days with fairly good air quality will gradually increase. Concentration of PM2.5 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtz River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions shall respectively fall by around 25%, 20% and 15%. The PM2.5 annual concentration in Beijing shall be controlled below 60 mg/m3.” 

Under the action plan, there were ten specific tasks set in place, and for the first time, the state put forwards quantitative air quality improvement goals for epecfic regions with a specified timeline and key actions that aimed towards holistic air quality management. Under this term, there were several Program for Result instruments, introduced in the energy sector of the country. This was designed keeping in mind the country’ goals for clean air and brought in diverse sources of green financing for the same. The environmental policy set forward in the term was condidered as one of the most influential plants of all time for the state, and helped the state to make significant changes in their air quality. 

While the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtz River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions all beat their targets that were set forward through the action plan, none of the cities had reached the annual levels as set by WHO. By the end of 2017, it was reported that only 107 of 338 cities in the country had reached minimum interim standards. The successes of this term gave global and national actors much hope for the upcoming plan. 

Stage 4: 2018 – 2020

The new three year action plan for “Winning the Blue Sky War” is one of the most-awaited plans for action amongst global and national stakeholders. This action plan cover broader ranges of goals with safer targets, and hopes that the all 338 cities will be able to reach globally recommended standards as given by WHO. Experts say that the new plan is significantly broader in terms of scope for restrictions and aims to pressure cities that had not previously addressed air pollution concerns within their focus areas. While no new quantitive targets have been set following 2020, in order to lessen the confusion for local state governments, there are various frameworks being set in place to address the eventual return of the targets. With just the first phase set into motion, over 70 cities have met several targets to reduce air pollution, which may reduce the motivation to address these concerns. Nonetheless, there are various measurements and frameworks enforced, even in the midst of a pandemic, although various sources do state that the new targets are moderate in comparison to previous years. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): What are some measures taken by the Chinese government to address air pollution concerns?

What are the most polluted cities in China?

Source: IQAir. (2021, December 22)

1Wujiaqu, Xinjiang277
2Changji, Xinjiang260
3Sishui, Shandong256
4Fengxian, Jiangsu255
5Kashgar, Xinjiang251
6Xiazhen, Shandong250
7Fushun, Liaoning239
8Qufu, Shandong238
9Tongshan, Jiangsu231
10Zoucheng, Shandong230

What is the air quality index legend followed in China?

Source: Health and Safety in Shanghai, n.d.

AQI ValueInterpretationPM2.5 concentration (μg/m3)
0 – 50Excellent0 – 35
51 – 100Good35 – 75
101 – 150Lightly Polluted75 – 115
151 – 200Moderatly Polluted115 – 150
201 – 300Heavily Polluted150 – 250
301 – 500Severely Polluted250 – 500

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

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Hao F. (2018, July 06). China releases 2020 action plan for air pollution. China Dialogue. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Health and Safety in Shanghai. (n.d.). China Air Quality. China Air Quality Index. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

IQAir. (2021, December 22). Air Quality in China. Real-time China Most Polluted City Ranking. Live AQI City Ranking. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Jin Y., Andersson H., & Zhang S. (2016, December 09). Air pollution control policies in China: A retrospective and prospects. International Journal of Environmental Researc and Public Health. 13(12). Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Leung F. (2021, July 30) How China is winning its battle against air pollution. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

The World Bank (WB). (2020, June 21). China: Fighting air pollution and climate change through clean energy financing. Results Briefs. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

United Nations Environment (UNE). (2019). A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing. United Nations Environment Programme. Nairobi, Kenya. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

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