Covid-19 lockdowns give China breathing room on air quality targets

Echo Xie
·3-min read

Air quality in China improved so much during last year’s coronavirus-related lockdowns the country beat its national standard for levels of harmful PM2.5 particulates, a key pollution indicator.

Liu Bingjiang, head of the environment ministry’s air quality management department, said on Thursday PM2.5 concentrations fell to an average of 33 micrograms per cubic metre in the 337 cities across the country where the pollution is monitored.

Once the effects of lockdowns were discounted, the figure rose, but still hit last year’s 35 microgram standard – an average fall of 8.3 per cent. The World Health Organization’s recommendation is 10 micrograms.

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Liu said the 2021 standard for PM2.5 particles was set at 34.5 micrograms per cubic metre, slightly higher than the figure achieved under the unusual conditions caused by the coronavirus.

“It looks like the air quality target for 2021 is a bit lower than the 2020 figure, but after discounting the impact of the pandemic, [we will] still need to keep improving our air quality,” he said.

Average PM2.5 concentration is expected to drop 10 per cent year on year to 2025, with the ratio of good air quality days climbing 0.5 per cent to achieve 87.5 per cent in the same time frame.

The monitored cities on average enjoyed 87 per cent of good air quality days in 2020 – measured as below 100 on the air quality index (AQI), which is generally regarded as satisfactory.

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This represented a 5.8 per cent increase compared with five years ago, and also exceeded the improvement target of 3.3 per cent.

Concentrations of other key pollutants also fell. Levels of PM10 particles, ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide dropped 11 per cent, 7 per cent, 9 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively compared to 2019. It was the first time ozone levels fell since 2015.

At the same briefing, environment ministry spokesperson Liu Youbin confirmed earlier reports that China’s top climate diplomat Xie Zhenhua had been appointed special envoy on climate change. A new office dedicated to climate issues will also be established within the ministry.

Xie played leading roles at the Copenhagen and Paris climate summits. Liu said his appointment underscored China’s emphasis on climate change and commitment to strengthen communication with international partners.

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Ma Jun, director of Beijing-based non-governmental organisation the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, suggested China could use its latest five-year plan period to integrate its efforts to reduce pollutants and carbon emissions.

“We’ve had some significant progress in fighting air pollution in the past five years and the progress was more obvious in some heavily polluted areas,” he said. But there was still room for improvement, Ma added, including the persistent weather-related pollution in northern China during autumn and winter.

“We should strive to eliminate severely polluted weather during the 14th five-year plan period from 2021 to 2025.” Cities which had already met the national PM2.5 standard – such as those in the Pearl River Delta in southern China – could contribute by aiming for even higher standards, he added.

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