China’s New Regional Air Quality Regulations: A Win-Win for local air quality and the climate

When I went back to China this summer after my first year living outside of China in a decade I was not sure what I would find. The US press reporting on Chinese pollution had been so uniformly negative that I was not sure if somehow immediately after I left Beijing the improvements that had been taking place since the 11th Five Year Plan began in 2006 had suddenly stalled. What I found was quite to the contrary – new regulations that come into effect in 2014 are driving massive upgrades of the power sector and transforming the energy supply in central cities. As this new equipment comes on line and the Regional Air Quality (RAQ) Regulations enter into force, we can expect significant improvements in air quality.

Cold Weather Contributes to Beijing’s Air Pollution

The negative news about ‘airpocolypse,’ described the extremely poor air quality Beijing experienced during the winter of 2012-2013, particularly from January 2013 onward. Experts at Tsinghua University, China’s top engineering school, confirmed my hunch that abnormally cold weather played a role. I had noticed on my Facebook feed that the complaints about air pollution came hard on the heels of complaints about Beijing’s coldest winter in decades. It turns out that very cold weather helps form ice crystals in the air, which act as a catalyst for the production of PM 2.5. For these ‘airpocalypse’ episodes, PM 2.5 is primarily a secondary pollutant, produced in the air from primary emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), black carbon and ammonia (NH3). The icy crystals in frigid air provide surfaces for the PM 2.5 to catalyze. Moreover, Beijing’s long-term problem of temperature inversions – i.e. air sits over the city for days, while pollution accumulates each day – became worse, with the duration of the average inversion more than doubling. As a result, Tsinghua scientists say that while primary pollution in Beijing was about the same as the year before, secondary pollution resulting from chemical reactions in the atmosphere increased by as much as 80%. Obviously, an effective air quality program has to be geared to protecting health not just when the meteorology is optimal, but when it is at its worst, and Beijing is far from prepared for this level of prevention. But it is useful to note that previous emissions controls were in effect and being observed. They simply weren’t enough.

Major New Efforts to Control Pollution

Nevertheless, the situation is not static. A suite of new measures goes into effect in 2014, and they should be good news for the air, both locally and globally. The provisions of the 12th Five Year Plan, state-of-the-art power plant standards, and new regional air quality regulations will all come into force soon and have already driven significant power plant upgrades as plants prepare. This summer I visited environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) and power plants in Jiangsu province, which is in the lower Yangtze River Valley, one of three priority regions under the 2010 regional air quality regulations (the other two are the Pearl River Delta in the South and the Beijing-Tianjin region around the national capital). The extent and speed of change surprised me.

In the power plants themselves, major equipment upgrades are coming on line:

  • SO2 abatement equipment is being upgraded (to meet the new power plant and RAQ standards), so that plants will be able to remove about 97% of SO2 from their air emissions, in comparison to the current 90%. This is all being done using domestically produced equipment.
  • NOx abatement is being added to all new power plants (as part of the 12th Five Year Plan goals).
  • Additional particulate capture equipment is being added at the end of the waste stream. There are already baghouses and electrostatic precipitators prior to the SO2 and NOx abatement equipment, but plants are adding electrostatic precipitators at the end of the stream to capture more PM 2.5 (as part of RAQ compliance).

Less Coal, More Natural Gas

In the lower Yangtze Valley cities are converting homes to natural gas and moving small-scale factories close to modern coal-fired power plants, enabling them to use waste heat. Both these moves eliminate the use of significant amounts of coal, thus reducing both local air pollution and climate gases. These measures are part of a set of policy tools the Central Government has prioritized in the three RAQ priority regions designated in the 2010 regional air quality regulations. The shift to natural gas was perhaps the biggest surprise I observed during my visit. Natural gas had been extremely limited in the lower Yangtze Valley, but those I spoke with said new supplies brought in by pipeline from the West have made natural gas a real option, not just for home cooking, but also for power. In fact, with this new gas supply, a new Jiangsu Province regulation says that no new coal-fired power plants can be built South of the Yangtze River (the dense urbanized area around Shanghai).

While my research focused on the lower Yangtze Valley, these changes are taking place in other highly polluted regions as well. In fact, the city of Beijing just announced that total public and private investment in pollution abatement will amount to $163 billion (or Chinese Renminbi 1 trillion) in the next five years, and even more importantly, it has negotiated with neighboring Hebei province, the source of much Beijing air pollution, for it to reduce its coal consumption. This interaction between provinces to address the regional nature of air pollution is very new in China and is a positive result of the RAQ regulations.

Pollution controls, the shift to natural gas, and specific regional controls on coal power plant development are all contributing to lower estimates for China’s total coal use. In fact, China now has a non-binding target to limit energy consumption, and some experts believe coal will peak below 4 billion tons, which is slightly higher than current levels. Thus, while China will continue to be a major greenhouse gas emitter for the foreseeable future, it appears the government is seriously considering the possibility that it will be able to control emissions growth and even see a peak by some time in the 2020s, much earlier than analysts previously forecasted.

Author information:
Deborah Seligsohn is a ChinaFAQs Expert from the University of California at San Diego

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons