China Is Winning Its War on Air Pollution, at Least in Beijing

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China is seeing signs of success in its fight against smog as pollution levels slump dramatically in the capital region Beijing.

Concentrations of PM2.5 — the tiny particles that pose the greatest health risks — plunged 33 percent from a year earlier in the fourth quarter across Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities, Greenpeace East Asia said in a report Thursday. Levels in the capital alone tumbled 54 percent. The drops come after government policies last year forced millions of homes and businesses to switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas.

The bluer skies came at a price, as the widespread switching to natural gas contributed to shortages of the fuel, leaving homes frigid and factories shut. Still, improving air quality is a win for President Xi Jinping, who pledged to unleash an “iron hand” against pollution, and anti-coal measures will likely continue, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

a close up of a map: Bluer Skies in Beijing © Bloomberg Bluer Skies in Beijing “The switch from coal to gas has dramatically reduced pollution,” Bernstein analysts including Neil Beveridge in Hong Kong wrote in a report Thursday. “While there have been problems in implementation, the plan is delivering results.”

Replacing coal with gas for residential and industrial use is part of a series of measures to clean smoggy cities, along with closing outdated or illegal steel mills, coal mines and aluminum smelters. Natural gas demand rose 19 percent through October, the latest government data show. It will probably rise by 15 percent this year as Beijing sticks to its anti-coal guns and spurs development of gas infrastructure, Beveridge wrote.

Worth It?

The shift toward cleaner heating fuels proved problematic in November and December, as some regions ran short of natural gas, forcing the government to halt factories to prioritize supplies for residential users, and in some cases let homes go back to burning coal.

However, “negative effects caused by the transition from coal to gas are relatively small,” making it worthwhile for China to expand the switch and start up nuclear power plant construction, said Jiang Kejun, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission.

The NDRC in December announced a winter-heating plan for northern regions expected to cut coal use 150 million metric tons by 2021. Natural gas, biomass, heat pumps, direct electric heating and geothermal power will replace the dirtier-burning fuel.

Besides a reduction in household coal use, measures to cut industrial emissions and favorable weather conditions “contributed to the very dramatic reduction in pollution levels” in Beijing and surrounding areas, Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy analyst at Greenpeace in Beijing, said by phone.

Nationwide, the air-quality improvement was less dramatic, with a 4.5 percent decrease in PM2.5 levels during 2017, according to Greenpeace.

“We shall expect the winter in 2018 to be even cleaner as the government carries out the campaign on coal to gas more thoroughly,” said Tian Miao, a Beijing-based energy specialist at Everbright Sun Hung Kai Co.

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