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Asia

Are China's anti-smog efforts paying off?

Air quality in some of China's smoggiest cities and regions and cities has modestly improved in the past few months, a new analysis found. DW speaks to Greenpeace's Zhang Kai about why air pollution levels have dropped.

The analysis of air pollution data from 360 Chinese cities shows that air quality in coastal regions and cities such as Beijing has modestly improved over the past 12 months.

Released by Greenpeace East Asia on April 21, the report - based on an unprecedented government disclosure of air pollution data for the first quarter of 2015 - found that while Beijing still ranked in the top five worst polluted provincial-level regions in China, the capital's PM2.5 concentration improved more than 13 percent compared to the first quarter of 2014, and industry-heavy Hebei province, just outside of Beijing, also improved 31 percent.

In a DW interview, Zhang Kai, Greenpeace East Asia Climate and Energy Campaigner, talks about the factors driving this development, but also points out that this is the only silver lining in a situation where 90 percent of cities still record levels of pollution that far exceed China's own air quality standards.

DW: What factors have contributed to the reduced smog levels?

Zhang Kai: We believe the government's strict air pollution control measures have drastically reduced pollution from heavy industry, at least enough to record a modest improvement on last year in certain cities such as Beijing. But the overall situation in China is still dire. Data show that 90 percent of the cities that Greenpeace East Asia ranked are exceeding China's own limit on yearly average level for particulates (PM2.5) in the air.

Smog in Peking China 24.02.2014

Greepeace expects that PM2.5 concentration levels in coastal cities will continually improve in the coming months

Which areas have seen the most progress?

Hebei has the significant improvement of PM2.5 pollution. If the PM2.5 data of Hebei is credible, the significant decrease is partly due to strict air pollution control policies for Hebei issued from 2013 September by the central government. These measures will reduce coal consumption by up to 40 million tonnes by 2017, which is a significant reduction.

In this context, we welcome the unprecedented transparency with which the government is acting to disclose air pollution data.

Which provinces have seen less progress?

The provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan - all located in either central or western China where strict pollution controls have not been enacted - were among the 10 worst polluted provinces in the first quarter of 2015.

What are your expectations for the coming months?

Our expectations for upcoming months is that PM2.5 concentrations in coastal cities will continually improve, however this will be offset, if not overtaken, by ever-increasing PM2.5 concentrations in landlocked cities in China's central and western provinces.

Data show that 90 percent of the cities ranked are exceeding China's own limit on yearly average level for particulates (PM2.5) in the air

Data show that 90 percent of the cities ranked are exceeding China's own limit on yearly average level for particulates (PM2.5) in the air

What are still the main challenges and how long do you believe it will take until they are overcome?

The strict air pollution control policies don't apply to land-lock regions right now. China's government must now ensure that pollution is not simply relocated from coastal regions to other regions, and that the same strict measures enacted in cities like Beijing are actually enforced across the country.

What more should China do to tackle this issue?

Back in 2013, China's top leaders issued a "war against pollution" and a national plan to improve air quality in the country. Greenpeace now urges the Chinese government to implement a regional coal cap and ensure that PM2.5 control measures and improvement targets are implemented across the whole country.

The best long-term solution to achieve that is to transition away from coal and towards clean, renewable energy sources

Zhang Kai is Greenpeace East Asia's Climate and Energy Campaigner.

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