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Beijing region sees record breaking drop in winter air pollution

Air quality in the Beijing region was better in November than any previous winter month on record, data shows.

It comes after the government started a major shutdown of cement and steel plants, in a bid to fend off winter pollution episodes.

The government also restricted small scale coal burning in 28 cities in provinces surrounding Beijing. But problems implementing the transition away from coal-based heating have left many people in the regions without heating, cooking facilities or hot water in sub zero temperatures.

In Handan City, near Beijing, smoke billows from all directions from the steel plants. The government is closing down plants around the capital in a bid to cut winter pollution levels. Photo: Lu Guang/Greenpeace


Levels of the particulate pollutant PM2.5 fell by 54% in Beijing in November compared to one year ago. It is the largest year-on-year drop on record for any month.

PM2.5 levels across the entire region fell by 37%, dropping to an average of 67 µg/m3, compared to 108 µg/m3 in November last year.

Heavy coal burning regions around the capital have also seen the largest fall on record in sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, Greenpeace analysis of satellite data and air quality measurement data shows.

But some industrial cities saw pollution levels rise right until the winter measures went into full effect in November and consequently their October-November averages still fell shortof their pollution reduction targets for the whole winter.

Autumn-winter action plan

In October, the government started a new plan designed to cut winter levels of particulate (PM) pollution by 15%, compared to the previous year. It targets major cities near Beijijng and coal burning areas further afield.

Cement plants have been closed completely, while steel, aluminum and coking plants have had their operations restricted, typically to no more than 50% of capacity. Major construction projects have also been brought to a halt, cutting emissions and limiting demand for steel and cement.

Government air pollution officials have carried out an unprecedented number of inspections, visiting 4,000 industrial plants. Teams found violations at 70% of the facilities they visited, and are holding local officials responsible for failing to enforce.

Another programme targets households, with the aim of shifting 10 million households to electricity and gas for heating, cooking and hot water.

Coal to cold: implementation problems

As cold weather sets in, reports suggest that the shift away from coal has left some people without heat or hot water.

Local governments in some areas have yet to install the networks and heaters required to shift millions of households and businesses from coal to electricity and gas.

It also thought that a reliance on government orders rather than economic incentives and a focus on gas at the expense of other cleaner heating options, such as geothermal and heat pumps, combined with better insulation of houses, have contributed to the problem.

In response, the environmental ministry has relaxed the coal bans, emphasizing that ensuring heating supply has to be the first priority.

The government permitted areas without alternative heating installed to continue using coal, ordered the restart of mothballed coal-fired units at a Beijing power plant, and urged local governments to curtail gas supply to industrial users if needed to secure supplies for residential users.

These emergency measures will provide relief to residents lacking heating, but are unlikely to increase coal-burning on a scale that would undermine the air quality gains.

Meanwhile, the problems have already prompted a re-think of the high reliance on gas. Experts interviewed by the Communist Party official newspaper, People’s Daily, called formore attention on house insulation and the use of other alternatives, such as geothermal and heat pumps.

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