The action plan sets goals for five years, up to 2017, for various regions including the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei Province and the Yangtze River Delta. The Pearl River Delta, home to nine cities and more than 57 million people, is tasked to achieve its clean-up one year ahead of other areas as it has relatively low pollution. Estimates attribute more than 12,000 premature deaths in 2006 in the region to particulate air pollution.

"China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan is one of the most important policies in the history of Chinese air pollution control," Qiang Zhang of Tsinghua University, China, told environmentalresearchweb. "For such significant policy, however, no one knows what would happen or to what extent the policy could help improve the air quality in China, as the government has never made pre-evaluations of pollution policies."

To find out the likely impact of the policy, Zhang and colleagues used three models – the Multi-resolution Emission Inventory for China (MEIC) to estimate emissions reductions, the community multi-scale air-quality modelling system combined with satellite-based PM2.5 values to estimate PM2.5 concentrations before and after emission abatement, and two types of health model to evaluate mortality and morbidity reductions resulting from changes in PM2.5 concentrations.

The action plan should see emissions reductions of 34% of SO2, 28% of NOx, 26% of PM2.5 and 10% of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), the team found. This should lower PM2.5 concentrations by 17%, more than the plan’s 15% target.

However, the projected impacts of the plan "fall short of the goal of protecting the health of local residents", the team writes in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), as more than 33 million people – around 65% of the population in the region – would still see an annual mean ambient PM2.5 concentration greater than 35 µg per cubic m. Although this is a World Health Organization (WHO) interim target, the WHO’s recommended goal is 10 µg per cubic m.

"We made a case study in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) as it is one of the key control regions designated by the central government and also promises the greatest chance to achieve the goal ahead of schedule (i.e. 2017)," said Zhang. "Therefore, we believe the pathway that PRD chooses to make the control will provide a good reference to others."

The plan involves changing the structure of the energy and other industries, and applying end-of-pipe controls such as flue gas desulphurization, selective catalytic reduction, electrostatic precipitators and low NOx combustion technology.

"What we find after this policy quantification highlights the importance of ‘evidence-based’ policy making, especially when China’s air pollution controls gradually enter the post action period – controls becoming harder, less effective and costly if there is a lack of quantitative pre-evaluation," said Zhang. "Besides, a simultaneous consideration of climate change issues when making pollution control policy would achieve a win–win situation."

Moving to natural gas could play an important role in decreasing greenhouse emissions as well as other pollutants. Post 2017, the team believes there should be more efforts on structural adjustment, including "shifting away the high pollution industries and accelerating renewable energy development, with a strong determination". Once large point sources are under control, more attention will be needed on non-point sources such as residential emissions and small point sources such as industrial emissions of VOCs.

"Establishing a scientific supervisory system for enforcement and monitoring is extraordinarily important for further air-quality management, especially for VOC control," said Zhang. "[And] regional collaboration [on] development and control between PRD and non-PRD in Guangdong province is important, as heavy industries transitioning from PRD to non-PRD would potentially occur, and this would lead to a great health impact on PRD residents even though the emission-intensive industries are removed from the region."

Zhang and colleagues are currently performing an interim evaluation of China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan at the national scale, with the support of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. "Besides, based on the present emission inventory, we are now trying to project China’s anthropogenic emissions in 2050, with a consideration of the existing control policies and further emission increases from economic growth," said Zhang. "The future emissions would be further used in air-quality projection and climate change issues, directing further control efforts in the long-term."

The team reported their findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Related links

Related stories