China commits to cut northern air pollution by 15 percent

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China has pledged to cut average concentrations of airborne particles known as PM2.5 by more than 15 percent year-on-year in the winter months in 28 northern cities to meet key smog targets, the environment ministry said.

Spectators wearing masks watches the men's singles match between Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic and Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay on a polluted day at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing, China, October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Picture Supplied by Action Images

In a 143-page winter smog “battleplan” posted on its website on Thursday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said the new target, for the October to March period, would apply to Beijing and Tianjin, along with 26 other cities in the smog-prone provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan.

China’s efforts to control pollution have often roiled the prices of steel, iron ore and coal with output routinely curtailed as a result of emergency smog regulations and inspection campaigns.

China is under pressure this year to meet politically important 2017 air quality targets. It aims to cut 2012 levels of PM2.5 by more than a quarter in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and bring average concentrations down to 60 micrograms per cubic meter in the Chinese capital.

But PM2.5 averages rose in the first seven months of the year as a result of near record-high smog in January and February, which China blamed on “unfavorable weather conditions”.

Experts still believe, however, that China remains on course to meet the 2017 targets set out in a groundbreaking air quality action plan published by the government in 2013.

“Actually, air quality from April to June was among the best over the last five years in Beijing and we still have confidence in achieving the target,” said Shelley Yang, a project manager at the Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC), a non-profit organization that includes academic, government and corporate organizations that “care about clean air”.

The extremely high PM2.5 levels in January and February will also make it easier for cities to achieve the 15 percent cut in the new year.

The government is still leaving nothing to chance, with some of China’s smoggiest cities under pressure to complete annual steel and coal closure targets by the end of September and implement tougher restrictions in the following months.

By October, big steelmaking cities like Tangshan and Handan must have plans in place to cut output by as much as 50 percent to limit smog during the winter heating season starting in November.

The region is also under pressure to eliminate thousands of coal-fired boilers, further restrict coal haulage on roads and ensure that power generators, steel mills and coking plants complete upgrades aimed at controlling emissions before heating systems are switched on.

Hebei is responsible for a quarter of China’s steel output, with Tangshan alone producing around 100 million tonnes a year, more than the United States. Neighboring Shanxi is China’s biggest coal producer, with more than 900 million tonnes of annual output.

In a note this week, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said the winter restrictions could also reduce primary aluminum output by 400,000 tonnes this year.

In a separate notice on Thursday, the Hebei government promised to use an “iron fist” to deal with air pollution over the winter.

Additional reporting by Muyu Xu and Tom Daly in BEIJING; Editing by Tom Hogue