Turning the conversation about Beijing's air pollution toward solutions

Over the past weekend, poor meteorological conditions contributed to a severe accumulation of air pollution in Beijing and hundreds of other cities in northern and eastern China. The extreme pollution was the worst in recent memory, yielding hundreds of media reports both within China and around the world. In addition, tens of millions took to Twitter and China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, to post their thoughts and complaints. Unfortunately, such extreme pollution accumulation episodes are common in Beijing. And even when meteorological conditions are good, average pollution levels in Beijing are still unacceptably high. Until China takes critical steps towards reducing emissions, poor average air quality and occasional “crazy bad” episodes will continue.

Vehicles are a critical source to control. Vehicles are typically by far the largest source of human exposure to air pollution in densely packed urban areas. Plus, the contribution of vehicle emissions to air pollution in China is increasing as the population of motor vehicles in Beijing and around China continues to grow rapidly. Implementing stringent controls to mitigate the pollution impacts of China’s motor vehicles must be a key priority in parallel with controlling other sources such as factories and power plants.

Moreover, such action needs to take place at the national level. Because vehicles (especially trucks and long-distance buses) travel in and out of cities, only stringent national-level regulations can ensure that all vehicles are controlled effectively no matter where they travel. In recent years, Beijing has made a series of impressive steps towards controlling pollution within its own boundaries (e.g. the most stringent vehicle standards in the country, the cleanest fuel quality standards in the country, scrapping >500,000 old polluting vehicles over the past two years, and more). However, the city still struggles to improve air quality because perhaps 34%-70% of Beijing’s pollution is regional, coming from dirty vehicles and industrial sources polluting in the surrounding provinces.

Short-term actions to control motor vehicle emissions in China. Two simple steps could make a huge and near-term difference in improving air quality in Beijing and throughout China, while simultaneously demonstrating the new Chinese government’s commitment to reducing pollution emissions:

  1. Immediately issue new fuel quality standards with supporting fiscal policies to reduce nationwide diesel sulfur levels to below 10 parts-per-million (ppm). Because high sulfur levels in fuel can poison advanced emission control technologies, improving fuel quality, especially reducing sulfur levels, is a critical prerequisite to introducing more stringent vehicle tailpipe emission standards. In 2011, China’s State Council announced that preferential fiscal policies would be utilized to encourage the supply of higher quality fuels nationwide. However, these fiscal policies have not yet been issued; a new fuel quality standard is stalled in the review phasecontinue to stagnate at unacceptable levels of 350ppm or higher. Resolving the fuel quality issue is a critical step to facilitate continued progress in vehicle emission control in China.
  2. Ensure that the China IV truck and bus emission standards are implemented this year without further delays. China’s next stage nationwide tailpipe emission standard for trucks and buses, called “China IV” (equivalent to “Euro IV”), aims to cut emissions of PM and NOx from diesel vehicles by 80% and 30%, respectively. However, because these vehicles need to be fueled with higher quality fuel which is not yet supplied nationwide, MEP has twice delayed the introduction of these standards across China. The current implementation date is July 1, 2013. In parallel with resolving the fuel quality issue, China should commit to introducing these standards without any additional delays.

Medium and long-term action to control emissions from motor vehicles. The aforementioned short-term, immediate actions will not be enough to solve China’s long-term motor vehicle emissions problems. Last month, China laid out a number of impressive medium-to-long-term regional air quality improvement actions in its “12th Five-Year Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control in Key Regions.” While the plans outlined in the document represent significant progress, the plan does not call for the most important step China can make towards long-term control of vehicle emissions: establishing a clear nationwide timeline for the introduction of global best-practice “China VI/Euro VI” vehicle tailpipe emission standards. Only with the introduction of these standards will diesel trucks and buses – some of the most polluting vehicles on the road – be required to install particulate filters to reduce >99% of PM2.5 particle emissions. Filters belong on cars, not people.

Monitoring and reporting: a recent success story, but only the first steps. In the fall of 2011, public outcry over a series of heavy pollution episodes in Beijing was fanned by social media into enormous public pressure on Chinese authorities to respond. They did. In February 2012, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) issued two major new regulations: a revision to the ambient air quality standards to include PM2.5, and a new definition of China’s Air Quality Index. By the end of the year, China had completed and began operating a network of real-time PM2.5 monitors in 74 cities through the country. The Chinese government deserves praise for these important steps towards air pollution data transparency.

However, air quality monitoring and reporting are only first steps. Now the challenge is how to achieve rapid and significant emissions reductions in order to improve urban air quality. The above three steps – rapid improvement of fuel quality, introduction of China IV standards for trucks and buses this year, and establishment of a clear timeline for early introduction of China VI – will make huge differences in reducing toxic air pollution in Beijing and throughout China. In fall 2011, the public debate led directly to new standards on air quality monitoring and reporting. It’s time now to turn the current pressure towards the more fundamental issues of how and when to cut emissions themselves.

Clean air