While Beijing's Air Quality Improves, Smog Makes Journey to the West, Greenpeace Finds

From The Wall Street Journal , Published on 20 April 2016

China's pollution is going west.

For years, Beijing residents and others living in the country's polluted northeast have borne the brunt of China’s notorious air pollution problems. But as the government has tried to clear the capital's lungs, shutting factories en masse, the situation has improved.

At the same time, for many living in the country's less developed middle and west, the skies are actually getting more toxic.

That's according to the latest analysis by NGO Greenpeace East Asia, which analyzed data from 2016's first quarter to gauge how the country's war on pollution is progressing.

The grimmest finding was that out of 355 Chinese cities, 91 saw their average levels of tiny pollution particulates known as PM2.5 increase in 2016’s first quarter compared to 2015. Three-quarters of those cities, the group found, were located in China’s central and western provinces and experienced an average rise of more than 20% in their PM2.5 levels.

By contrast, average PM2.5 levels in Beijing dropped by 27% in the first quarter compared to 2015.

Part of the problem, environmentalists say, is that the country has adopted stringent targets for some regions, yet targets elsewhere lag. The country’s 2013 air pollution prevention plan, for example, mandated a 25% drop in air pollution in the area surrounding Beijing and a 20% drop in the eastern Yangtze River Delta area by 2017. Other areas, though, are subject to the less stringent goal of a 10% drop.

"Policies in the country's west and center are looser, so enterprises may be more willing to go there to invest, raising the likelihood of worsened pollution," said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Dong Liansai. The spread of polluting infrastructure such as power plants to the country's west has previously sparked protests.

Other factors may be contributing to the poor air quality out west, Mr. Dong said. For example, the group observed that Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang — the most-polluted region in their analysis — experienced especially low temperatures and wind levels during the first quarter, which may have spurred the use of heating and aggravated pollution levels.

Nationwide, PM2.5 levels dropped by 8.8% compared to the first quarter of 2015, including a 12% drop in Shanghai. Yet the vast majority of the country’s cities continue to fall short of national air quality standards, the group said.

The findings were both a reminder of the fact that China’s air pollution control measures have been effective, and also that they should be extended, Mr. Dong said. “We should emphasize solving the whole country’s air pollution problems — not just focus on a few priority areas.”

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