We have launched E-mail Alert service,subscribers can receive the latest catalogues free of charge

You Are Here: Home > Publications> Articles

Prospects for China's Air Pollution Control: Problems and Policy Options


Chen Jianpeng & Li Zuojun

In recent years, the haze weather occurring in most places of China has drawn extensive public attention, becoming a hot environmental issue for the present time. With the rapid development of urbanization and industrialization in China, the types of air pollution have changed significantly. The long~lasting problems, such as SO2, TSP/PM10, remain unsolved, and discharges of PM2.5, NOX and VOCs have increased evidently, thus worsening the air pollution.

I. Prospects for China's Air Pollution Control

1. Progress has been made in controlling conventional air pollutants and indicators of urban air quality monitored routinely take a turn for the better

(1) The rise of SO2 discharges has been basically held in check

During 2001~2011, the increase of SO2 in exhaust gases discharged nationwide was followed by a decrease. During the 10th Five-Year Plan period, the total of SO2 discharged increased steadily from 19.478 million tons in 2001 to 25.888 million tons in 2005, leaving the emission reduction targets set for the 10th Five-Year Plan unfulfilled. During the 11th Five-Year Plan period, China began to exercise volume control over SO2 discharges and advanced the thermal~power desulfurization work in an all~round way. SO2 volume in waste gasses in industrial waste gasses and in domestic waste gases discharged nationwide all dropped on a yearly basis. In 2010, the amount of SO2 discharged nationwide decreased by 14.3% as compared to 2005, an overfulfillment of the emission reduction task set for the 11th Five-Year Plan . In 2011, SO2 was discharged to a total of 22.179 million tons, down 2.21% as compared with 2010.

(2) Smoke and dust discharges have been brought under effective control

During 2001~2010, the amount of industrial dust dropped steadily from 9.906 million tons in 2001 to 4.487 million tons in 2010. During 2001~2010, smoke discharges increased gradually and then decreased steadily. Of the years, between 2001~2005, the amount of smoke discharges increased from 10.698 million tons in 2001 to 11.825 million tons in 2005. Later, the amount of dust discharges decreased year by year from 10.888 million tons in 2006 to 8.291 million tons in 2010.

(3) Indicators of urban air quality monitored routinely take a turn for the better

Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and inhalable particles are (current) indicators monitored regularly in urban areas of China. Data show that, since 2005, the annual average concentration of major air pollutants in China's urban ambient air, such as SO2, NO2, PM10, has shown a continuous downward trend, with the concentration exceeding the standards in some cities. However, the national annual average has been lower than the Grade~II Annual Average Limit of the present environmental quality standards. During the 11th Five-Year Plan period, the soot~caused air pollution was being initially held in check in China.

SO2 concentration has reduced. Data show that SO2 concentration has assumed a downward trend since 2005 in key cities of China (Figure 1). In 2011, the number of cities at the prefectural level or above where annual average SO2 concentration reached the standard accounted for 96% of all the cities nationwide3.

Prospects for China's Air Pollution Control: Problems and Policy Options
Figure 1 SO2 Concentration in Countrywide Cities During 1996~2011
Sources: Compilations from China Environmental Quality Report for relevant years, Nationwide Air Pollution for relevant years by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as calculated data. Data acquired during 1998~2004 were national averages, and data acquired after 2005 were those for key environmental protection cities.
NO2 concentration has remained stable on the whole. NO2 indicators have basically remained stable since 2005. In 2011, the annual average NO2 concentration in cities at the prefectural level or above all reached the standard4
The concentration of inhalable particles has reduced. The concentration of nationwide inhalable particles has shown a downward trend on the whole since 2000. In 2011, the number of cities at the prefectural level or above where annual average PM10 concentration reached the standard accounted for 90.8%5 of all cities.
According to present national air quality standards, since 2005, the nationwide urban air quality has remained stable on the whole and has taken a turn for the better. The number of cities reaching primary and secondary standards has increased on a yearly basis, and the number of cities equaling the tertiary standards has decreased rapidly. However, appraised under the present air quality standards, the urban air quality publicized by various places is "stable on the whole" and "is improving constantly", which differs considerably from what the public feel. The present environmental air quality standards find it hard to reflect the true air quality in an all~round way. Relevant studies show that the PM10 and SO2 concentration in China is about 4~6 times that of developed European and American countries, and the NO2 concentration is close to or higher than that of developed countries, and the PM2.5 concentration is the highest in the world. In this context, departments concerned unveiled new ambient air quality standard in 2012. According to the new standard, the air quality of 2/3 of the cities in China will not live up to the standard.
2. Cities are confronted with new compound air pollution and pollution problems like smog are becoming increasingly serious
(1) Types of air pollution are changing
In past 30 years, with the rapid development of China's industrialization and urbanization, the primary pollution sources have turned from coal and industry into coal, industry, motor vehicles and dust. In major air pollutants, PM2.5, NOX, VOCs and NH3 discharges have increased evidently. And the air pollution has expanded constantly (Table 1). The inhalable particles have become the primary pollutants affecting urban air quality6.Air pollution over urban clusters in China is transiting from coal~smoke pollution to motor vehicle exhaust pollution, incurring a compound pollution of coal~smoke and motor vehicle exhaust. The combined pollution is characterized by coexistence of pollutants, overlapping of pollution sources, multi~scale connection, multi~process coupling and multi~medium influence.Regional atmospheric haze, photochemical smog and acid deposition have become new forms of air pollution.
Table 1 Change of Air Pollution in China



2000 up to now

Primary pollution sources

Coal, industry

Coal, industry and dust

Coal, industry, motor vehicle and dust

Major pollutants



SO2, PM10, PM2.5


Main air problems


Soot, acid rain, particles

Soft coal, acid rain, photochemical pollution, dust~haze/

Fine particles, hazardous and noxious substances

Air pollution measurement


Locality + region

Region + hemisphere

Source: Chinese Academy of Engineering & Ministry of Environmental Protection,China Environmental Macro~Strategy Studies (general report volume), China Environmental Science Press, p. 469, March 2011.

(2) Regional haze weather is becoming increasingly severe

Studies show that there were fewer smoggy days in China during 1950~1980, but after 1980 the number of smoggy days increased evidently and rose drastically after 2000 and that, the annual average of smoggy days in 2010 (29.8 days) was almost 4 times that of 1971 (6.7 days) In recent years, the number of haze~polluted days occurring every year in Beijing~Tianjin~Hebei Area, the Yangtze River Delta Area and the Pearl River Delta Area has reached 100 or more, while haze pollution has been even worse in such cities as Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan.

If you need the full text, please leave a message on the website.

1Total amount of SO2 discharge targets dropped by 10% during the 11th Five-Year Plan period.

2The 2011 data come from China Environmental Bulletin, 2011 published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, with the scope of statistics adjusted in 2011.

3Source: China Environmental Quality Report, 2011, Ministry of Environmental Protection, December 2012.

4Source: China Environmental Quality Report, 2011, Ministry of Environmental Protection, December 2012.

5Source: China Environmental Quality Report, 2011, Ministry of Environmental Protection, December 2012.

6Yan Li and et al: "An Analysis of the Trains of Thought for Preventing and Controlling Particulate Pollution During the 12th Five-Year Plan Period", China Environmental Policy (9th Volume), China Environmental Science Press, pp. 49-63, 1st Edition of October 2012.