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Meteorological conditions, such as wind speed, will continue to play a decisive role in air quality for a long time. [Photo/IC]

The lack of wind will produce challenging seasonal conditions

With autumn nearly over and winter just around the corner, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster has seen four bouts of smog since the start of October due to unfavorable weather conditions, including lack of wind and a stable atmosphere.

According to the national observatory, such unfavorable conditions are likely to be experienced during the winter.

The heating season in northern China officially started on Thursday and will end on March 15. The heaviest pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster occurs during this period, and weather conditions this year will mean the control situation will be "grim", according to authorities and officials.

With emissions remaining high in the heavily industrialized cluster, meteorological conditions, such as wind speed, will continue to play a decisive role in air quality for a long time, according to these sources.

This is despite ongoing efforts to strengthen air pollution governance, including replacing coal with clean energy sources and shutting down small factories that emit pollutants.

The officials and experts said that while government efforts have greatly reduced air pollution density, it will become increasingly difficult to cut the level further because this work takes time.

"Very stressful"

This year, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the country"s top environmental authority, set a goal of reducing the average intensity of PM2.5, a major air pollutant, by 3 percent year-on-year from Oct 1 to March 31 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster. However, last year the goal was set at 15 percent.

The cluster includes 28 major cities in the Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, and Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi and Henan provinces.

"It"s very stressful to achieve this goal. The task is very arduous," said Liu Youbin, a spokesman for the ministry.

He denied that the reduction in the target means efforts have eased this year, adding, "That"s a misunderstanding of the action plan."

The progress on pollution control made last autumn and winter in the cluster was due not only to government efforts, but also to favorable weather conditions.

Experts" calculations show that favorable conditions contributed to one-third of the improvement, or 8.5 percent of the decrease in PM2.5 density, Liu said.

The average PM2.5 density in the cluster stood at 78 micrograms per cubic meter last autumn and winter, down by 25 percent year-on-year, according to the ministry.

Ai Wanxiu, chief forecaster at the National Climate Center, said China will generally experience a warmer winter than in recent years, which means that atmospheric conditions will tend to be stable because of weak cold air from the north, making it difficult to disperse pollutants.

As air pollution control efforts continue, and while there has been an obvious improvement in air quality, the scope for emissions reductions has been reduced.

"The adjustment of structures (such as transportation and land use) cannot be done overnight and there will not be any immediate results... We need to fully recognize the difficulties and complexities in future air pollution control work. It will be increasingly difficult to reduce PM2.5 density," Liu said.

According to Wang Jinnan, head of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, coal consumption in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Shanxi comprises 33 percent of the national total, despite these areas only occupying 7.2 percent of the country"s territory.

Meanwhile, the area is home to 43 percent of the nation"s steel production, 45 percent of coke output, 31 percent of plate glass, 19 percent of cement, 60 percent of bulk pharmaceutical chemicals and 40 percent of pesticides. A total of 28 percent of crude oil is also processed in the region.

Wang, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview in July that the pollutants emitted from the consumption of 1 metric ton of bulk coal are 10 to 15 times those emitted from coal used for power generation.

A total of 60 million tons of bulk coal is consumed in the 28 major cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster and in the Fenhe and Weihe river plains, which are also plagued by heavy air pollution.

Energy switch

Much work has been done to reduce bulk coal consumption and to close small and poorly managed polluting companies in the cluster. These sources of pollution are relatively easy to control.

A three-year action plan by the State Council, China"s Cabinet, has vowed to root out bulk coal consumption in plain areas in the 28 major cities before the heating season begins in 2020.

In Hebei, for example, more than 3.5 million households in rural areas had switched to natural gas or electricity as a heating source by the end of last year. The province plans to complete the shift to clean energy in almost 1.8 million rural households this year, and most of the work has been completed, said Gao Jianmin, head of environmental protection in Hebei.

According to authorities in the province, at least 69,000 poorly managed small factories had been closed by early November last year.

Beijing upgraded its last 28 coal-fired boilers in eight heating supply stations this year. For the coming heating season, instead of coal, all boilers for central heating in the capital will use natural gas, said Zeng Jinghai, deputy director of the atmospheric environment management department at the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Ecology and Environment. Zeng added that all boilers for industrial use had shifted to clean energy last year.

He said all rural households in flat areas of the capital, also known as plain areas, will switch to clean energy for heating during the winter, while those in mountainous areas will use clean coal.

Clean coal refers to any technology that may mitigate emissions of sulfur dioxide and other polluting gases that arise from the burning of coal for electrical power.

In late September, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued an air pollution control action plan for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster for autumn and winter.

Authorities are also restricting production during the winter to curb emissions.

Instead of setting unified production restrictions on highly polluting industries such as steel and building materials, the plan requires these industries to cut production based on their performances in emissions reduction.

No production restrictions will be imposed on those with outstanding performances in environmental protection and with low emissions.

However, companies that fail to meet the national standard for emissions or who do not upgrade their pollution control facilities as required will be subject to "full restrictions", according to the plan.

Liu, the ministry spokesman, said, "We will make more efforts to introduce policies that can address pollution at the root, and focus on the establishment of a long-term mechanism for emissions reductions."

The Blue-sky Protection Campaign is continuing in the cluster, with officials inspecting companies to root out violations related to air pollution.

The campaign, which also targets the Fenhe and Weihe river plains and the Yangtze River Delta, is running from June 11 to April 28 and involves 18,000 officials, most of them concentrating on the 28 cities in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster.

When there is heavy smog, these cities adopt further production restrictions to help alleviate pollution under an emergency response system.

According to a preliminary calculation by the National Joint Research Center on Air Pollution Causes and Control, the production restrictions imposed during recent bouts of haze in the area, including one that lasted from Nov 1 to 4, had worked well. They eased pollution by reducing 15 to 20 percent of particulate matter caused directly by emissions discharges, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide.

The center warned of an increase in air pollutants as some urban communities began testing heating supply facilities and some rural families started to warm their homes with coal in the first half of this month.

Still vulnerable

He Kebin, dean of the School of Environment at Tsinghua University, said it is "a must" to transform industrial, energy and transportation structures to promote emissions reductions to achieve the final goal of reducing the annual average PM2.5 density to 35 mg per cu m, or even lower.

"We can all see we are enjoying an increasing number of days with blue skies. These blue skies, however, are still vulnerable. Air pollution remains, as does the root cause of it." he told Beijing News in a recent interview.

Despite the occurrence of smog, PM2.5 density has been lower this year than previously and will continue to decline. Previously, heavy smog lasted for three to five days. Currently, the haze usually lasts for a shorter time with moderate pollution levels, said He, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

"We may still have to wait until 2030 to 2035 to have blue skies all the time. This could come earlier, however, if we can accelerate industrial upgrading and energy structure adjustment, and achieve breakthroughs in technology innovation and the use of new energy," he added.

Zhang Yu in Shijiazhuang contributed to this story.

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