Smog or Heat for the Winter: Northern China Faces a Grim Choice

Smog or Heat for the Winter: Northern China Faces a Grim Choice
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Why you should care

Governments relaxed targets to lower air pollution — and hazardous air quality has swiftly followed.

Thick smog blanketed northern China last week, a reversal of the blue skies seen in winter 2017.

The return of visible pollution came after Chinese authorities decided not to renew cuts to steel production and coal use aimed at improving air quality. The looser environmental standards are part of a host of measures, including an infrastructure stimulus and tax cuts, aimed at restoring confidence in the country’s slowing economy.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, levels of particulate matter (PM) of 2.5 microns, a standard for measuring air pollution, peaked above 12 times the World Health Organization guidelines for outdoor air quality last Wednesday.

It was the worst air quality Beijing has seen in nearly 18 months.

That level of pollution is considered “hazardous” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it wasn’t limited to Beijing. Air in Hebei province, an industrial region surrounding China’s capital, was worse as local governments rolled back curbs of polluting industrial activity. Air pollution in Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital, worsened even as the air in Beijing cleared on Thursday.

China’s National Meteorological Center attributed the haze to the start of heating season on Nov. 7 and a lack of wind to blow away pollutants. The country’s northern cities are historically reliant on coal-fired power, causing increased airborne pollution during the winter months.

Rather than place hard caps on coal use and steel production, authorities this year have instead mandated that PM 2.5 levels must fall 3 percent rather than the previously proposed 5 percent target.

China’s newly restructured Ministry of Ecology and Environment defended the less stringent target, saying that last year’s big drop in air pollution had been aided by advantageous weather conditions that may not be repeated this year.

Levels of PM 2.5 fell 33 percent across the 28 cities affected in the last quarter of 2017 while Beijing’s levels fell even more significantly, by 54 percent, according to Greenpeace.

However, the cuts came at a cost for small companies and state-owned enterprises, as authorities banned construction in neighboring Hebei province and shut down workshops and factories around Beijing and Shanghai. Meanwhile, steel producers in four large production cities were ordered to slash steel production in half during the autumn and winter months while reducing the use of coking coal by nearly a third.

Pollution curbs also affected local residents after authorities confiscated makeshift coal heaters common in rural areas and in migrant worker shantytowns. Ensuing gas shortages left hundreds of thousands of households in the cold.

But this year, slower economic growth has prompted local governments to reduce the pressure on heavy industries, easing gains made in lowering coal use and industrial activity. China’s carbon emissions rose at their fastest pace in more than seven years during the first quarter of this year, according to a Greenpeace analysis using data collected by Beijing.

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By Emily Feng

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