Cleaning China’s Air: First Regional Air Quality Regulations

China’s State Council promulgated its first-ever regional air quality regulations on May 11. This is the first time outside of the special provisions for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo that China has set up a structure for ensuring air quality across multiple provincial and urban jurisdictions involving entire airsheds. These new regulations begin the process of institutionalizing the lessons learned during the major efforts to improve air quality for those headlining events and bringing those lessons learned both to the long-term health of those two regions and to other regions facing air quality challenges in China. The full regulations are on line in Chinese at the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s website and our colleagues at the Energy Foundation’s Beijing office have helpfully translated them into English and allowed us to post the English translation.

The regulations direct the provinces to establish regional air quality plans by the end of 2011 and full programs by 2015, and are the product of coordination among the Ministries of Environment, Transportation, Finance, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, the National Development and Reform Commission and the National Energy Administration. Importantly they require improvements in both air pollution monitoring and control. There are specific provisions for all of the major air pollutants – SO2, NOx, particulates and volatile organic compounds (VOC). By covering NOx and VOCs, the provisions also address ground-level ozone, the cause of much urban haze and short-term health problems. The provisions require improvements in air quality monitoring and in the reporting of that data to the public.

The regulations have a tiered implementation approach with China’s three largest urban regions – the Beijing-Tianjin area, the lower Yangtze Delta (Shanghai and environs), and the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai) – as the focus of most of the initial requirements. As Zhao Lijian from the Energy Foundation noted to me these three regions together use 40% of China’s coal and produce 50% of its steel. A secondary list of regions that also need to begin work are also listed, and there is also a list of 113 major cities with stricter urban air pollution supervision. These include the requirements that these cities maintain at least the MEP’s designated grade II urban air quality standard and to submit plans for continuous improvement.

These provisions go beyond classic air pollution to also focus on the leading causes of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Clean energy is specifically discussed as part of the required plans. Provinces and cities are asked to promote cleaner forms of energy including natural gas, LPG (both substitutes for coal), solar power and energy efficiency. They are also asked to promote district heating, which also can increase efficiency as well as reduce local air pollution, especially when combined with power plants as co-generation. The provisions also promote clean transportation, including higher vehicle emissions standards and the promotion of public transportation.

Some other provisions address air quality without addressing greenhouse gases. This is not surprising, given the pressing need to improve local health. In addition to win-win energy sources, the regulation also promotes gasified coal, which improves air quality without addressing GHGs. It also provides for the use of traditional pollution abatement, such as we use in the United States, for SO2, NOx, and particulates, which will remove the pollutants, but actually uses some energy to operate.

In his analysis of the new regulations, the Energy Foundation’s Zhao Lijian cites the following highlights of the regulations in the three key regions:

  1. Establish air pollution emissions standards that are significantly more stringent than the national standards for energy-intensive industries, including coal-fired power generation, iron & steel, petrochemicals, and cement, among others.

  2. Impose strict limits on new construction and expansion of coal-fired power plants and other heavy industrial facilities.

  3. Deploy clean energy resources, including natural gas, renewable electricity, and energy efficiency in urban areas; and the phase out of small coal-fired boilers in downtown areas.

  4. Pilot a cap on coal-consumption.

  5. In addition to the existing SO2 cap, establish an NOx emissions cap for each region, in advance of the 12th Five Year Plan;

  6. Upgrade air quality standards, and add fine particulates (PM 2.5) and ozone to the list of pollutants measured (this is the first high-level government directive to require a standard for fine particulates);

  7. Cooperate across jurisdictions, including provinces and municipalities within a designated region, to develop regional air quality management plans, the implementation of which will be evaluated annually by MEP and the results will be made public.

Photo by jaundicedferret courtesy of a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.