Serious air pollution during Two Sessions

In the past five years, China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by 14.1%, showed Premier Li Keqiang in his government work report at the Two Sessions this week. Meanwhile, the average concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) has dropped by 27.5%, and the number of days with heavy air pollution has dropped by more than 50%. 

The Two Sessions – the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislature) and of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a political advisory body) – are held to review the work of the past year and plan for the next. The current administration will make its last work report this year, showing the gains and losses during the past five or even 10 years of governance. Achievements and challenges in the environment and energy sectors form part of it.

Huang Runqiu, minister of ecology and environment, told the media at the Two Sessions that China’s PM2.5 has dropped in nine of the past 10 ten years and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by 34.4%. He said that China has seen the fastest improvement in air quality and the largest use of renewable energy in the world.

However, serious air pollution has occurred in Beijing and nearby areas since the beginning of the Two Sessions, a reminder that China’s environmental management still has a long way to go. The China National Joint Center for Air Pollution Prevention and Control has confirmed that moderate to severe air pollution, indicating most people should stay indoors, has occurred locally in Beijing and nearby areas in the past few days. The main cause of the pollution was regional emissions from industrial activities, coupled with warm and humid weather and an unfavourable wind direction. The pollution is expected to last for another week or so, coinciding roughly with the end of the Two Sessions. According to Bloomberg, it was the most air-polluted Two Sessions in at least a decade.

People usually expect “political blue skies”, an improvement in air quality due to strengthened pollution control and reduced industrial activities during important political meetings. Some scholars have shown that air quality has improved significantly during key meetings. In fact, two weeks before this year’s Two Sessions, major officials from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment went to nearby provinces to supervise and inspect the air pollution prevention and control of key industries and enterprises.

The absence of blue skies shows that China is still striving to balance economic development, energy security and growing the share of low-carbon energy. The government work report mentioned that the proportion of China’s clean energy consumption has risen from 20.8% to more than 25% in the past five years. It also mentioned the role of coal as the main energy source and promoted the “clean and efficient use of coal.” China Electric Power News pointed out that national energy security is the primary concern of energy development.

According to an interview with experts by the China Times, coal needs to be phased out gradually, but the phase-out process should be based on the establishment of a new energy system. The construction of the system needs to be accelerated.

Read China Dialogue’s earlier report on tackling air pollution and this report on China’s energy security and energy transition.