If you’re living in China and have the vague impression that the skies have been bluer than usual this year, it’s not just wishful thinking.
According to an analysis released Wednesday by Greenpeace East Asia, China’s air is not as awful as it used to be. Among 189 cities examined by the environmental nonprofit, PM2.5 levels in the first half of 2015 were down an average of 16% compared to the same period last year. Only 18 cities saw their levels of PM2.5 increase.
Health experts say that small particles such as PM2.5 are particularly worrisome for human health, given their ability to creep deep into the lungs and aggravate heart or lung disease.
“I think this is the first time I’ve seen a massive reduction on PM2.5 concentrations at a national level,” said Dong Liansai, Greenpeace East Asia energy and climate campaigner. In recent years, the frequent grey pall and onset of periodic “airpocalyses” have helped discourage tourism to Beijing and have spurred expats and locals alike to leave for more oxygen-rich environments.
In the country’s notoriously smoggy capital, residents have seen PM2.5 levels drop by 15.5%, with levels of sulfur dioxide – which can contribute to respiratory problems — experiencing a still more precipitous drop of 42.6%, the group said. The capital has been making a concerted push to clean up its skies, closing or relocating 185 firms in the first half of this year, according to the Beijing government. Since last July, the city has also shuttered three of its four coal-fired power plants.
Mr. Dong said the bump in clean air doesn’t appear to be just a blip. He credited more aggressive government standards on emissions and efforts to shutter its dirtiest factories. He also cited the government’s 2013 air pollution control plan, which mandates that by 2017, certain regions must reduce their PM2.5 levels by as much as 25% compared to 2012 levels.
Compared with the rest of the world, the Middle Kingdom’s air still ranks as wretched: the average PM2.5 level in the 385 cities ranked by the group was 53.8 µg/m3, more than five times the World Health Organization’s recommended annual mean.
To keep skies blue-hued for events such as last November’s APEC summit, the city periodically shuts down nearby factories and orders cars off the streets. Such a strategy has in the past paid health dividends for residents. A recent study found that women pregnant during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—when the Chinese government worked aggressively to keep air pollution down for a seven-week period—gave birth to heavier, and presumably healthier, babies.