SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Air pollution in major regions of northern China increased during the first four months of 2019, the environment ministry said on Friday, raising fears that regions have eased curbs on industry to halt the smog amid concerns about a slowing economy.
China is in the fifth year of a war on pollution aimed at allaying public unrest about the state of the country’s skies, rivers and soil by raising industrial standards, cutting coal consumption and improving law enforcement.
However, pollution readings in the smog-prone northern Chinese region consisting of the province of Hebei and the cities of Beijing and Tianjin rose 8% from January to April, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said.
The readings assessed the amount of airborne particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, which is considered one of the most dangerous pollutants because it can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses.
For the Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei region, PM2.5 readings were an average of 81 micrograms per cubic meter in the first four months of the year, the ministry said.
A neighboring region known as the Fenwei Plain, home to some of China’s most polluted cities, also saw PM2.5 rise 7.8% to 83 micrograms over the four months.
In 337 cities monitored nationwide, PM2.5 remained unchanged over the first four months, reaching an average of 49 micrograms per cubic meter. China’s official standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.
Environmental officials have been at pains to show that efforts to reduce pollution will not be relaxed this year even though the Chinese economy fell to its slowest rate of growth since 1990.
However, Environment Minister Li Ganjie has warned that some regions have lost “momentum” when it comes to curbing smog.
Some local governments have blamed unfavorable weather conditions for the increase in smog over the late 2018-early 2019 period.
But Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst with environmental group Greenpeace, said in an email that pollution in Beijing and surrounding regions has rebounded largely as a result of the relaxation of industrial output restrictions and a 60-million tonne surge in coal consumption over the 2018-2019 winter period.
“Predictably, local governments did away with restrictions on industrial operation that had squeezed output and emissions in 2017-18,” he said, noting that steel, cement, nonferrous metals and thermal power production all increased last winter after falling a year earlier.
Reporting by David Stanway; editing by Christian Schmollinger