In 2014, Chinese premier Li Keqiang opened the National People's Congress with a list of "major tasks" for that year. Ninth on that list was "Building China into a beautiful homeland with a sound ecological environment."
This item was addressed dramatically with Li declaring, "We will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty."
Four years later, the Chinese government seems to be making progress, showing significant reductions in air pollution across the country and particularly in its most populated areas, including Beijing and Shanghai.
"The data is in — China is winning its war against pollution," said Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, said in a statement. "By winning this war, China is due to see dramatic improvements in the overall health of its people, including longer lifespans, if these improvements are sustained."
Breathing easier, living longer
In the lead up to Li's announcement, China's air pollution was cause for serious concern. Cities were experiencing levels of particulate matter pollution — tiny inhalable particles of things like dust or smoke mixed with droplets of liquid — at alarmingly high concentrations. Beijing, for example, had 91 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter pollution in 2013, or nine times the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be safe. By January 2014, it was 30 to 45 times the recommended daily levels, and residents were told to remain inside.
In 2013, the Chinese government rolled out the National Air Quality Action Plan, a course of action that was intended to reduce particulate matter pollution, establish goals for limited coal consumption, reduce the number of cars in major cities and increase the use of renewable energy and shale gas. Many of these goals had a 2017 deadline. For instance, the action plan laid out goals to reduce particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller in the regions of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta by 25 percent, 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively, by last year.
Greenstone, along with Patrick Schwartz, decided to determine how well China was doing with meeting many of these goals, particularly combating air pollution. They conducted the analysis using 200 government monitors around the country that measure particulates. While there are many more monitors around the country, the 200 they relied on were active in both 2013 and in 2017, affording them a consistent comparison for evaluation.
According the monitors Greenstone and Schwartz collected information from and released in a small paper, the Chinese efforts were more than successful. Pollution fell across the board and outdid the goals established in 2013. In the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, concentrations fell by 36 percent, while the other two regions experienced declines of 27 and 34 percent, respectively. While these concentrations are well above the standards set by both China and WHO, Greenstone and Schwartz write that China "has achieved remarkably cleaner air in the very short period of four years."
Provided the reductions are sustained, residents in the areas covered by the monitors can expect to live on average 2.4 years longer compared to 2013, with the residents of Beijing can expect to live 3.3 years longer.
Cleaning the air isn't easy
China's push to clean up its air hasn't been without hiccups, however.
By late June 2017, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region wasn't on track to meet its goal; indeed, concentrations of particulate matter actually rose between January and July of last year, and reductions in the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta regions has leveled off. This resulted in a 143-paged "battle plan" that called for drastic reductions in industrial and commercial coal consumption, particularly in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.
As a Quartz report compiled, these steps weren't taken with all eventualities in mind. As winter approached in 2017, China restricted coal use in 30 cities with the aim that natural gas would provide an alternative source of heat for households. Natural gas supplies fell short, however, resulting in residents in northern cities going without heat in the winter. In Xi'an, the capital city of China's central Shaanxi province, 170 communities had their heating suspended due to gas shortages.
The rush to meet the demands of the action plan may have also resulted in officials being overzealous in the steps they took to meet goals. Yanzhong Huang, a professor at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations and an adjunct senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, that local officials often shut down small businesses, like auto repair shops and steamed bun vendors, that release very little pollution over fears of being sanctioned by inspectors higher up in the government.
Huang also critiqued the government's overall approach, saying that "the government set targets based on incomplete scientific data, including from health professionals," including the fact that benchmarks were set arbitrarily, with little regard to the actual impact on human health. While Greenstone and Schwartz's analysis does answer that question, both they and Huang insist that any good achieved from the action plan will be short-lived unless the Chinese government takes serious steps to ensure a sustained effort to reducing air pollution.
For Huang, it's a matter of making the clear guidelines and enforcement that is "institutionalized, or at least routinized" by the government. Greenstone, writing in a March 12 New York Times piece, encouraged China to consider market-based approached instead of operating with "engineering-style fiat," the type of actions that resulted in small businesses closing or people going without heat.