On Wednesday, the Chinese government announced it will shut down small-scale coal burning in two of the countries northern, coal-dependent provinces by 2020.  

PM2.5 emissions high in coal burning regions

China says it plans to shut down small-scale “scattered” coal burning in two of its coal-dependent northern provinces by 2020, according to a report by Reuters.

Shanxi and Shaanxi are the two provinces targeted in Beijing’s anti-smog efforts, according to Zhao Yingmin, vice-minister of ecology and environment.

Currently, about 90 per cent of the two province’s energy comes from coal.  Zhao says emissions of hazardous breathable particles known as PM2.5 are second only to the Beijing-Tianjin Hebei region.

PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.  Because they are so small and light, fine particles tend to stay longer in the air than heavier particles, which increases the chances of humans and animals inhaling them into the bodies.

Last year, China completed an action plan aimed at cutting pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Bebei area along with the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta manufacturing hubs.  However, “despite tremendous improvements in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region over the last five years, it still ranks as the most polluted”, said Zhao.

Zhao says the Pearl River Delta was able to reach the interim state PM2.5 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic metre last year.

Along with Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, another target area will be the far northwestern border region of Xinjiang.  The area’s coal production is on the rise and PM2.5 concentrations are also increasing.

He added that “The readjustment of the target zones is a result of comprehensive assessment of the impact of PM2.5 in different regions”.

In recent years, the Chinese government has forced industrial scale coal users, including power plants and steel mills, to install technologies to curb harmful emissions.  Now, Beijing is turning its focus to was it calls “scattered” pollution sources.  These include backstreet workshops and rural heating operations.

According to Reuters, experts are calling on the Chinese government to adopt a more flexible approach to air pollution in the near future.  They say the “one size fits all” policies used in the past are no longer effective.

These same experts are also calling on China to address ground-level ozone, known as “sunburn for the lungs”.  Ground-level ozone is mostly caused by the interaction of sunlight with vehicle exhaust fumes.

Zhao says the government has opted to focus on PM2.5 until the end of the decade.

The plan is working with average PM2.5 concentrations in 338 monitored cities falling 6.5 per cent to 43 micrograms per cubic metre in 2017.  China says its goal is to reach a national standard of 35 micrograms by 2035.