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More than nine in 10 Chinese cities exceeded air pollution targets in 2014, says Greenpeace

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 03 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h590
  1. Shuping Dai, Lingzhong Xu
  1. 1School of Public Health, Shandong University

Over 90% of the 190 Chinese cities that reported pollution levels in 2014 exceeded the national standard, a report by Greenpeace has found. Cities in the north of China were the worst polluters—seven of the top 10 most polluted cities were in Hebei Province and three were in Shandong Province.

The report found that in 2014 the average emission of particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of <2.5 μm (PM2.5) in 190 Chinese cities was 60.8 μg/m3. A total of 49 cities recorded over double the national standard of 35 μg/m3 for PM2.5, while just 18 cities achieved this target.1

The main source of PM2.5 is emissions from burning fuel. China has the world’s heaviest PM2.5 pollution as a result of its reliance on coal, which provides 80% of the country’s electricity. PM2.5 is readily inhaled and penetrates deep into the bronchi and lungs, disturbing air exchange and increasing the risk of chronic lung problems. In 2010 PM2.5 pollution was said to be responsible for 2349 deaths in Beijing.

The Chinese public became acquainted with PM2.5 in 2009 when the US Embassy in Beijing set up an air quality monitor on its compound and released PM2.5 data on Twitter. Since then, terms such as “haze” (a phenomenon jointly caused by air pollution and weather factors) and “beyond index” (meaning particulate matter was above 500 μg/m3, the highest measure of the air quality index) have been introduced to the Chinese vocabulary.

The Greenpeace report said that air quality in northern China improved last year mainly because of the drastic measures—including halting emission heavy production, closing construction sites, offering vacations to public sectors, and limiting vehicles on the streets—that were taken to cut emissions during the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Beijing in November 2014. As a result the north China sky remained blue during the meeting, prompting the public to coin the phase “APEC blue.”

In 2013 China set out a ¥1700bn (£180bn; €240bn; $275bn) plan to curb air pollution over the following five years, but there was no significant improvement in 2014, a situation that has been widely criticised.

Li Yan, climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace East Asia, said that local governments would take emergency measures to protect the public on serious haze days, by cutting factory emissions, limiting vehicle use, and establishing an alert system to remind people to stay indoors. But she added, “The alert system is not efficient enough [right] now, which results in the fact that primary schools in many cities still allow pupils to do outdoor activities on serious haze days.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h590


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