PM2.5 density in 28 key cities has risen for first time since 2013
○ Smog is expected to hit northern China earlier than usual this year and experts are pessimistic about the air quality in the fourth quarter.
○ Official statistics show it will be difficult for local governments to meet their environmental targets this year.
○ To pressure local authorities, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has launched a year-long special inspection.
Smog is expected to arrive in North China earlier than usual this year due to unfavorable weather conditions such as a higher than normal temperature and humidity, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).
For the local and provincial environmental authorities, this means their chances of meeting their air quality targets, set by the State Council five years ago, are getting slimmer.
In 2013, in a five-year action plan on the prevention and control of air pollution, the State Council set a target of cutting the level of fine particulate matter in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Province region by 25 percent by the end of 2017. As the time to review the success of the action plan draws near, local and central environmental authorities are stepping up their efforts, including launching tough environmental inspection campaigns.
China's air quality has improved in recent years as the country has done more to counter pollution. However, the trend has been reversed this year. According to MEP statistics, in the first six months of 2017, the PM2.5 density of 28 key cities in northern and central China rose by 5.4 percent year on year, the first time the density has gone up since 2013.
In some cities, such as Taiyuan in Shanxi Province and Shijiazhuang in Hebei, PM2.5 density rose by over 30 percent. Experts say these statistics indicate that it will be difficult for the targets to be met.
In September 2013, China's State Council introduced the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, which proposed improving overall air quality across the nation over five years, reducing heavy pollution by a large margin and making obvious improvements to air quality in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Specifically, by 2017, the level of inhalable particulate matter in cities above prefecture level should drop by at least 10 percent against 2012 levels and the days with good air quality should be increased year on year. The level of fine particulate matter in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta will be cut by 25 percent, 20 percent and 15 percent respectively and the annual concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing will be kept at 60 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Xinhua.
Five years later, experts and local officials say these targets will very likely be missed. A report by China's National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University, published this January, said that even if the area surrounding Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cut carbon emissions simultaneously, the majority of the area still won't be able to fulfill the targets of the 2013 action plan. If the surrounding area does not cut carbon emissions, then the entire area won't be able to meet the target.
Wang Zhongxia, vice chief of Handan's environmental protection bureau, said that according to the action plan, the PM2.5 density in Handan, one of the most polluted cities in Hebei, should drop 30 percent from 2013 levels, which averaged 139 micrograms per cubic meter, in 2017.
From January to July this year, the average PM2.5 density in Handan was 86 micrograms per cubic meter, 38.1 percent down from its 2013 level. However, since PM2.5 density usually rises significantly in autumn and winter, it is still uncertain whether the annual average will be low enough.
"It's a daunting task," Wang said after a meeting in his bureau on August 24. "I haven't slept for two nights."
Hebei capital Shijiazhuang is also finding it difficult to meet the targets. Last year, the city government set a target to lower its PM2.5 density by 20 percent this year from 2016.
Counter to its expectations, in January and February, Shijiazhuang's PM2.5 density surged by a staggering 70 percent, mainly due to unfavorable weather conditions, according to local officials. From January to July, the PM2.5 density in Shijiazhuang rose 20 percent year on year.
"The difficulty is beyond normal," said Yang Wenbin, vice secretary general of the Shijiazhuang government.