In a dramatic televised announcement, the Chinese government declared it was waging a “war on pollution”. That was in 2014. Four years later, the numbers are in: China is winning.
It means big things for its people: if these reductions in pollution are sustained, the average Chinese citizen will add almost 2.5 years to their life expectancy.
The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) analyzed daily data from over 200 monitors across China from 2013-2017.
The country’s most populated cities have cut concentrations of fine particulates in the air by an average of 32 percent in just four years – most are meeting or exceeding goals outlined in their 2013 Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, a $270-billion initiative with plans to reduce particulate air matter in the most densely-populated cities. An additional $120 billion was set aside to fight pollution in Beijing.
The country pledged to meet reduction goals by reducing the nation’s dependency on coal, controlling vehicle emissions, increasing renewable energy generation, and better enforcing emissions standards. The government also increased its transparency in sharing information with the public.
It not only marked a shift in the government’s longstanding prioritization of economic development over the environment, but also the government’s rhetoric about air quality. In the past, state media said poor air quality was due to “fog” and that emissions didn't affect this.
The Chinese government took concrete steps to follow through with decisions outlined in the Action Plan to uphold its promise.
Any new coal-fired power plants were prohibited, and in 2017, the plans for 103 new coal plants were canceled. Those that weren’t canceled were made more efficient and were required to reduce their emissions. By some estimates, by 2020 every Chinese coal plant will be more efficient than every US coal plant. Coal plants that didn’t meet new requirements were cut and replaced with natural gas. Officials made economic moves when they shifted gears to cut steel production and instead incentivize non-fossil fuel power.
The Chinese government also promoted an “ecological red line” that restricts “irrational development” and curbs construction near rivers, forests, and national parks.
Some of the methods were downright harsh. The government restricted automobiles on the road, announcing plans to nix millions of cars that didn’t meet emissions standards. The government even went so far as to physically remove coal boilers from homes and replace them with gas or electric heaters if a region wasn’t meeting its pollution targets, says the report.
Some parts of China literally went green. Earlier this year China’s State Forestry Administration announced its plans to plant two large forests covering 6.66 million hectares (16.6 million acres), roughly the size of Ireland, increasing its total forest coverage to 23 percent in 2020, with a goal of 26 percent by 2035.
Some say this battle may very well be won.
“The data is in – China is winning its war against pollution and is due to see dramatic improvements in the overall health of its people,” said Michael Greenstone, director of EPIC, according to the report.
But the war is not over.
“Looking forward, it is apparent that longer-term solutions are needed,” reads the report, which concludes that there is a long road ahead for the nation to meet national and international air quality standards.