Despite improvements, China’s air quality yet to meet international standards

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Air pollution is a prominent environmental problem that endangers the health of Chinese people. In 2012, China released a new ambient air quality standard, GB 3095-2012, which included the concentration limits of key pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are closely related to health.

Over the past decade, a series of key policies such as Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, the three-year “Blue Sky” action plan as well as a number of emission reduction measures were implemented.

On April 22, World Earth Day, Clean Air Asia held a special event to promote the scientific public dissemination and transformation of research results on air and health issues. During the event, Peking University’s Initiated AiR-Climate-Health (ARCH) team shared the latest results from their research, Assessment of the Health Effects of Air Quality Improvement in China.

The Assessment shows that China’s air quality has improved a lot since the State Council issued the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in 2013, which also contributed to significant health improvements. However, the research team also pointed out that air quality in China is still far from ideal — suggesting further and more coordinated treatment of various air pollutants to reduce the harmful effects on people’s health.

According to their research, since 2013, the PM2.5 exposure concentration in China has decreased by 48 percent, 53 percent of the population’s exposure concentration level has fallen below the national standard limit, and the loss of life expectancy related to PM2.5 has decreased from 1.86 years to 1.38 years.

“During the five years after the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, the improved air quality had reduced China’s household health spending by about one percentage point of the country’s GDP,” said Xue Tao, a Peking University ARCH team researcher.

In order to further protect public health, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the Global Air Quality Guidelines in 2021. The most important changes are that the guidance values ​​for PM2.5 and NO2 have been significantly tightened, and O3 peak season guidance has been added. At the same time, targets for the transition phase are set for reference in air quality management in various countries.

The revision of the WHO standard has played a leading role in China’s air pollution prevention and control work, said Wan Wei, program director of Clean Air Asia China.

Compared to WHO’s 2005 standard, the 2021 guidelines lower the guiding value for PM2.5 from 10μg/m3 to 5μg/m3 and that of NO2 from 40μg/ m3 to 10μg/ m3. According to the Peking University research, almost no regions of China can meet the new WHO PM2.5 guidelines, suggesting that China’s current air quality needs to be further improved.

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