Pollution soars in Northern China in February: official data

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Air pollution in 39 smog-prone northern Chinese cities soared in February, making it increasingly unlikely they will meet their annual winter air quality targets, Reuters analysis of official data showed.

People are seen in a traditional alleyway, or Hutong, on a polluted day in central Beijing, China March 2, 2019. Picture taken March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China is heading into the sixth year of its “war on pollution” to try to reverse damage from over three decades of untrammeled economic growth and allay public disquiet about the state of the country’s air, soil and water.

In his annual government work report delivered to parliament on Tuesday, Premier Li Keqiang vowed that China would continue to “strengthen pollution prevention and control” this year.

However, the country has struggled to meet its targets in recent months, especially in the 39 cities in the key northern pollution control zones of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Fenwei Plain. Average concentrations of hazardous airborne particles known as PM2.5 rose 40 percent in February to hit 108 micrograms per cubic meter in the region, analysis of official data showed.

Anyang in Henan province was again the most polluted city among the 39, with PM2.5 reaching 163 micrograms, up 60 percent from a year earlier. PM2.5 in Anyang exceeded 500 micrograms at one point during the month.

China’s official PM2.5 standard is 35 micrograms. The World Health Organization recommends an annual average of no more than 10 micrograms.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment blamed “unfavorable” weather for the decline in air quality in February, saying on Sunday that “a weak El Nino effect” and a subsequent increase in temperature and humidity made it harder to disperse emissions after Feb. 19.

But, the ministry also said that Lantern Festival firework celebrations and the reopening of factories after the Lunar New Year holiday contributed to the surge.

“I’m very comfortable attributing the bad air quality in the second-half of February in part to the ongoing increase in heavy industry and coal power plant output around the region,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, air pollution analyst with environmental group Greenpeace.

According to Reuters calculations, only six of the 39 cities have experienced an overall decrease in PM2.5 concentrations over the October-February pollution control period. Average levels over the period rose 13 percent to 88 micrograms.

The cities are under pressure to make cuts of at least 3 percent year-on-year from October to March.

“Local governments that fail to achieve their targets will be held accountable - please wait and see,” ministry official Liu Bingjiang said at a briefing on the sidelines of China’s latest national session of parliament on Tuesday.

The environment ministry has been at pains to stress that China will not relent in efforts to curb pollution even as the economy slows, and it warned local governments not to blame economic problems on environmental controls.

Premier Li on Tuesday said China would cut key pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by 3 percent this year. He said it would also seek “a continuous decline in PM2.5 density in key areas”, though he did not give any specific target.

Additional reporting by Yawen Chen in BEIJING; Editing by Joseph Radford