China’s industrialization and economy have been steadily growing over the past few decades. As cities become more populated and energy use increases, air pollution can also increase.
According to the World Bank, only 1 percent of China’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. This can largely be attributed to PM2.5―particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter―resulting, largely, from burning coal. In four of China’s major cities, PM2.5 levels exceed World Health Organization guidelines. Health threats associated with breathing PM2.5 include increased risk of cancer and premature death.
In December 2016, China’s smog level hit historic levels, causing schools to close, halting transportation, and driving city residents to wear respiratory masks. Dubbed the “airpocalypse” by global media, the spike in air pollution levels affected more than 460 million people.
Applying U.S. Best Practices to Improve Air Quality in China
The United States had its own challenges managing air quality during periods of industrial growth, but with the enactment of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1970, demonstrated that sustained economic growth and clean air can be achieved together.
Since 1970 and up through 2013, the gross domestic product increased by 234 percent, vehicle miles driven has grown 168 percent, and energy consumption has increased by 44 percent.
At the same time, aggregate emissions, including carbon monoxide and particle pollution, have decreased by 68 percent.
Studies show that the public health protection and environmental benefits of the Clean Air Act outweigh the cost of the program by about 30 to 1, with an estimated $2 trillion in benefits.
For more than 30 years, we have supported EPA efforts to develop emissions regulations, based on sound science, for dozens of industrial sectors as part of the Clean Air Act. With funding from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, our experts drew on their deep understanding of the design and implementation of Clean Air Act regulations in the United States to deliver a report that outlines lessons learned and applies them to the China context.
In 2013, we collaborated with the Jiangsu Environmental Protection Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sonoma Technology, Inc., and the Regulatory Assistance Project to develop an Air Quality Management Planning Framework. This report aims to help the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People's Republic of China lift communities out of the smog by outlining best practices and technologies used in the United States for improving air quality.
Analyzing Air Pollution in the Jiangsu Province
Our experts analyzed conditions in three cities in Jiangsu Province—Nanjing, Changzhou, and Suzhou—that face challenging air quality issues driven by rapid urbanization and increased energy demand.
In 2014, the province had the highest industrial smoke and dust emissions in China and was ranked second in coal consumption. Perhaps not surprisingly, PM2.5 levels in the province that year exceeded national annual average standards. The geographical makeup of the region also presents a unique challenge—with mountains on three sides, it is difficult for pollution to disperse.
Data reviewed by our team showed that a major contributor to air pollution in the province was coal-fired power and industrial manufacturing facilities. Coal accounts for more than 70% of the total energy consumption in China, and Jiangsu is the second largest user in the country.
Our researchers also studied national and provincial level environmental laws and programs―including the 12th Five Year Plan on Air Pollution Prevention and Control in Key Regions issued in 2011 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection―to understand the steps China has taken to improve air quality.
We then assessed the costs and benefits of improving air quality in Jiangsu, based on U.S. experience and data for the key industrial sectors. The assessment showed that benefits such as reducing health care costs associated with chronic bronchitis and emergency room visits far outweigh costs
Delivering Recommendations for Improving Air Quality
Based on our analyses of air pollution in Jiangsu Province, our experts developed recommendations for improving air quality, including
- Increasing staffing levels and budgets of environmental protection bureaus to better address the challenges they face
- Coordinating interagency planning and data sharing to integrate air quality, energy, and transportation planning processes
- Developing high-quality emissions inventories that follow a common data structure and require industrial facilities to report their emissions annually
- Developing emissions standards that reflect best available control technologies that are demonstrated and cost-effective
- Developing a robust operating permit program
- Updating and implementing emergency programs when pollution levels reach a high-risk level for human health
- Developing a strong, but fair, enforcement program
Armed with these recommendations, the government of China is better positioned to reduce air pollution while still meeting energy demands and maintaining economic growth.
With sustained actions to reduce emissions, China has the potential to achieve public health benefits similar to those driven in the United States by the Clean Air Act.