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China: 2020 Air Pollution Action Plan Released

(Aug. 16, 2018) On June 27, 2018, the State Council (China’s cabinet) released a three-year action plan for tackling air pollution, which sets up targets for improving the air quality of the country by 2020. (State Council, Three-Year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War (Guo Fa [2018] No. 22, June 27, 2018) (Three-Year Action Plan) (in Chinese), State Council website; Hao Feng, China Releases 2020 Action Plan for Air Pollution, CHINADIALOGUE (July 6, 2018).)

The Three-Year Action Plan contains specific targets for reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides by 2020, with both to decrease by at least 15% compared with 2015. For cities where the existing PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) standards have not been met, the urban concentration of PM2.5 is targeted to decrease by at least 18% compared with 2015. The annual numbers of days with fairly good air quality is targeted to increase to at least 80%, and highly polluted days to decrease by at least 25% compared with 2015. (Three-Year Action Plan, supra.)

The Plan focuses more on controlling ozone than the previous action plan by adding specific targets not only for nitrogen oxides, but also for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ozone is created when VOCs react with nitrogen oxides. By 2020, VOCs are targeted to decrease by 10% compared with 2015.  (Id.; Feng, supra.)

Another notable change is that the Three-Year Action Plan redefines the key regions where air pollution is heavy. The Plan does not include the Pearl River Delta, which was one of the three key regions in the previous air pollution action plan. A new key region has been added: the Fen-Wei Plains, which include Xi’an, the capital city of Shaanxi province, as well as other parts of Shaanxi; Henan province; and Shanxi province. Furthermore, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei key region has been expanded to include the surrounding areas, including parts of Shanxi, Shandong, and Henan provinces. (Three-Year Action Plan, supra.)

The Plan explicitly calls for a reduction in emissions of pollutants “in coordination with” a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases, indicating that China is integrating the management of air pollution and climate change. (Feng, supra.) The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) used to be responsible for managing greenhouse gases and combating climate change, while the management of air pollutants other than greenhouse gases was the responsibility of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). In April 2018, a new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) was established. The MEE absorbed the environmental protection functions of the former MEP and several other central government departments, including the NDRC. (Ma Tianjie & Liu Qin, China Reshapes Ministries to Better Protect Environment, CHINADIALOGUE (Mar. 14, 2018).)

The Three-Year Action Plan was issued following the expiration in 2017 of the earlier plan released in 2013. (State Council, Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (Guo Fa [2013] No. 37, Sept. 10, 2013) (in Chinese), English translation available on the Clean Air Alliance of China website.) The 2013 Plan has been called China’s most influential environmental policy of the past five years and an important factor in significantly improving China’s air quality by setting PM2.5 targets for key regions. (Feng, supra.)