Lessons for Delhi: How Beijing shifted tide in its battle against pollution

Chinese govt introduced a four-month ban on construction, reduced emissions from cargo corridors, resulting in a 54% drop in PM2.5 levels.

Updated: Nov 13, 2018 08:58:09

By Sutirtho Patranobis

Chinese govt introduced a four-month ban on construction, reduced emissions from cargo corridors, resulting in a 54% drop in PM 2.5 levels. (AP Photo)

As a long, bitter winter and sub-zero temperatures clamp down on Beijing and northern China, the battle against pollution — spurred by an action plan launched in 2013 — is set to get intense again.

For this winter, the government’s plan is to reduce the average intensity of PM2.5, a major air pollutant, by around 3% in Beijing and surrounding areas, according to an official plan released by China’s ministry of ecology and environment.

After years of battling crippling air pollution, the 2013 plan started yielding results “with average PM2.5 levels in the cities… falling by 30% from 2013 to 2016”, according to Greenpeace, a Netherlands-based non-governmental environmental organisation. In the five years since, Beijing’s PM2.5 had fallen by about 54% — figures that a heavily polluted city like Delhi desperately needs to replicate.

The government’s policies are broadly focussed on controlling pollution from vehicular emission, construction dust and coal-burning for winter heating.

Two targets: Vehicles and Construction

A research project led by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre had revealed earlier this year that emission from vehicles and construction dust accounted for most of Beijing’s pollution.

“Currently, mobile sources, including automobiles, boats and planes are the largest contributor for locally generated PM2.5 particulate matter that poses health dangers,” state media had quoted the survey as saying.

“The research also found dust kicked up from roads and construction sites… to be on the rise. The proportion of its PM2.5 contribution increased from 14.3% in 2013 to 16% last year,” it added.

The second such survey on air pollution in Beijing revealed that in 2017, around 45% of PM2.5 came from vehicles. Diesel trucks were the worst offenders, it said.

The government is specifically targeting diesel vehicles.Since last year, the government has restricted the movement of diesel trucks within the city, said an official report released last week. “Judging from the effect of policy implementation, as of the third quarter of this year, the emission structure of the trucks entering Beijing was significantly optimised,” said the report.

“Pollutant emissions from major cargo corridors in and out of Beijing have been reduced by 34%, playing an important role in regional air quality management,” it added.

Last year, the government also banned construction of road and water projects as well as demolition of houses between November and 15 to March 15 within Beijing’s six major districts to curb construction dust.

An official statement published in state media added that the government would step up dust control supervision at construction sites and restrict use of machinery with high emissions.

The period of ban – other than for major livelihood projects — spans the four months when central heating is on for Beijing’s houses and other buildings.

From October 1, emission restrictions have also been put in place on heavily-polluting sectors including thermal power, steel, petrochemical and cement.

In addition, the 2013 plan requires reasonable targets to be set in local programmes regarding converting winter heating sources from coal to cleaner natural gas and electricity, in order to ensure environment-friendly heating for residents.

The results

In a report last January – when pollution is usually high across northern China including Beijing – Greenpeace said PM2.5 had fallen by about 54% in the capital city since 2013.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has, in fact, recognised China’s efforts to tackle pollution. “WHO’s data captures impressive progress in China, where investment in clean energy, a national air pollution action plan and strict emission standards have driven dramatic progress, with average PM2.5 levels in the cities… falling by 30% from 2013 to 2016,” Greenpeace said in a report this May.

One catalyst behind the drastic reduction was the policy to switch millions of homes and offices from coal-powered heating to heating by cleaner energy. “The consumption of coarse coal in rural areas of Beijing fell by about 3 million metric tons in 2017, as authorities helped switch homes to clean energy alternatives,” state-controlled China Daily newspaper reported this year.

There-in is a tricky path for the government as it realised last year. “The large scale push to eliminate small-scale coal burning in provinces surrounding Beijing failed to install homes with gas heaters or pipes in time, leaving them without heating in sub-zero temperatures,” Greenpeace had said last year.

Even state-controlled media admitted the problem. “Amid efforts to switch homes from coal to cleaner alternatives, families across northern China were left without heat during last winter due to a shortage of natural gas,” the China Daily report added.

Lessons for Delhi

A comparison of satellite-retrieved pollution levels in China and India, both for their respective national capital regions and for the whole country, shows how China turned a leaf on dealing with air pollution.

The data by Greenpeace shows how China reversed the turn of air pollution around 2014, soon after the National Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan was issued in September 2013.

The reduction in pollution levels since then is around 30%, representing more than a 100,000 premature deaths avoided each year, according to Greenpeace. “Our earlier analysis shows that by far the most impactful measures over this period are the strengthened emissions standards and enforcement for coal-fired power plants and industry, combined with levelling off of coal consumption growth. Other measures targeting coal use in industry and households directly have been very important in the Beijing region,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, senior global campaigner, coal and air pollution, Greenpeace, Beijing.

“By far the most important thing was setting comprehensive and ambitious targets, and holding provinces and cities accountable for meeting them,” Myllyvirta added.

First Published: Nov 13, 2018 08:48:02


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