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Despite Waging a 'War on Pollution,' China's Air Is Still Really Filthy

Following an 'airpocalypse' in 2013, the Chinese central government announced strict air quality goals — which remain far out of reach in many cities.
Photo by Hao Bin/EPA

A majority of China's cities are still suffering under unhealthy levels of air pollution as the country struggles to reach its pollution goals.

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection announced last week that nearly 75 percent of major cities had air pollution levels above the national air quality standard in June, according to Reuters. At this time last year, nearly 90 percent of cities failed to meet air quality standards.

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In Beijing, air pollution levels worsened since last year. The city's air was below healthy standards on nearly 60 percent of the days in June, an 11 percent rise over last year.

China's government has cracked down on air pollution in recent years, even declaring a "war on pollution" in early 2014. But cleaning up air is a tricky, years-long process, and even monitoring air pollution trends is complicated by weather and other factors, said Chris Nielsen, director of the China Project at Harvard University.

"It's probably reflective of a trend in the right direction," Nielsen told VICE News. "But things are much more unpredictable than people expect. Air quality can get worse in certain periods of the year for reasons that in some ways have nothing to do with the [pollution] control regime."

Related: Cleaner Air in China Might Mean More Carbon Dioxide Pollution

In January 2013, smog blanketed one-sixth of China's territory in a severe pollution event now know as the "airpocalypse." The public outcry over the pollution drove Chinese officials to take air quality and environmental protection more seriously, Nielsen said. Later that year, the state released an action plan that set targets for reducing the presence of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, in the air: a 25 percent reduction for the region surrounding Beijing, 20 percent for the Yangtze River Delta, and 15 percent for the Pearl River Delta — all by 2017.

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So far, the government has largely targeted pollution from industry, particularly the energy sector, which relies heavily on coal-fired power plants. The country has employed technologies that clean emissions leaving a plant, like scrubbers that reduce sulfur dioxide, in addition to creating incentives for increasing efficiency.

The Chinese central government is encouraging a shift from an export-based economy to one focusing more on domestic consumption, Nielsen said. But their strategy has not always been informed by the best available science, or with an eye toward effects on the economy, he added.

"That structural change could be very good for the environment," Nielsen told VICE News. "The Chinese economy is stumbling a bit right now, and there are concerns that if the economy weakens too much, it becomes a real political risk for the government. Their backup plan is probably to start to building again and that could drive pollution back up."

Related: Here's How Many People Died in London From Air Pollution

Chinese officials have stated that they don't expect to meet the air quality standard on a national level before 2030, Reuters reported. Even that may be an overly optimistic goal, Nielsen said, especially when compared to the decades other countries needed to get their air pollution levels under control.

"It inevitably takes a long time," Nielsen told VICE News. "There's a lot of science that has to happen, they have to try different things, it is inherently an incremental process. That's been true in other parts of the world, and it's going to be true in China."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro