China announced on Monday that it had arrested 8,500 people on suspected environmental crimes last year. Chen Jining, China’s environment minister, said that close to 3,400 companies and 3,700 construction sites were also found to have violated environment laws, and more than 3,100 workshops were closed following air quality inspections by Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) officials and drones.
Overall, China’s air quality improved slightly in 2014. Average PM10 readings in 338 cities dropped 2.1%, while readings of the smaller and more harmful PM2.5 dropped 11.1% (there was even a 12.3% drop in the notoriously smoggy Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region). However, China’s air remains notoriously polluted. According to a MEP communique released earlier this month, only 16 of the 161 major cities subject to air quality monitoring met the national standards for clean air in 2014. The chart below (from January 2015) provides some reference:
However, China’s air quality progress is accelerating this year, thanks in part to environmental arrests and closures last year. In the first four months of the year, average PM10 readings dropped 5.3%, and average PM2.5 readings dropped 15.2% (including 20% in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region).
On Sunday, Beijing’s municipal government announced the city will keep cutting emissions in order to meet its target reductions of PM2.5, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. (Last year it failed to meet its PM2.5 target.) All coal-burning boilers will be closed in the six main districts of the capital to keep coal consumption under 15 million tons. The city will also phase out another 200,000 vehicles and close more than 300 factories.
In addition to the environmental and human health motives for cutting emissions, the upcoming Paris climate change talks in December add urgency to these moves. In contrast to previous global climate change summits, China is highlighting its environmental progress and committing to specific targets. On Tuesday it announced that its emissions “will peak by around 2030” and that it would work hard to achieve the target even earlier. China also expanded its previously-stated goals. The country’s plan to cut carbon intensity per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 from 2005 levels now has a 60-65% reduction target by 2030. And its goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to 15% by 2020 is now aiming for about 20% by 2030.
That said, there remains an enormous amount of environmental work to be done before China’s population can breathe a sigh of relief.