Sustaining Long-Term Success to Improve China’s Air Quality



Improved air quality is one of China’s top public policy goals. Since 2008, RAP has been working with environmental agencies at the local, regional, and national levels to develop expertise in all aspects of air quality planning and management. Pursuant to September 2013 requirements established by the State Council, all 113 key cities plus 225 county-level cities must complete and begin to implement their initial air quality plans by 2017. This unprecedented effort aims to reduce the severe and persistent pollution that pervades much of China. But few cities have air quality planning experience, and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which is responsible for oversight and approval of the local and regional plans, must have confidence in the ability of the local plans to meet nationally required goals to improve air quality. Long-term improvements must also be underpinned by a strong law and by guidance to assure consistency among cities and regions to avoid transporting pollution from one area to another.

Updating China’s Air Law

China’s original air law was adopted in 1987, and was last amended in 2000. The original law lacks specificity, and it does not grant MEP the authority it needs to effectively address the severe pollution levels resulting from China’s rapidly growing economy. RAP collaborated with Hongjun Zhang, a partner at Holland & Knight and former legislative director of China’s National People Congress who has deep knowledge of and experience with Chinese environmental law, to make recommendations to the legislative and environmental agency staff charged with amending and updating the air law.

The recommendations draw on the successful structure of the U.S. Clean Air Act (considered the strongest environmental law in the world), which provides broad authority for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine what pollutants and categories of sources to regulate, and to base regulatory standards on public health and science. The Act also requires EPA to periodically review pollutant and source category standards and, if appropriate, to revise them. This “self-implementing” structure is well suited to China. Such a structure would strengthen MEP’s authority and permit the ministry to determine which pollutants and sources to regulate based on environmental and health effects and the degree to which certain source categories contribute to pollution problems.

China’s legislative structure requires three readings of a proposed law before it can be adopted. The first reading of the Air Law amendments was in late December 2014. A second reading is scheduled for June 2015, and the third reading for October 2015. Look for more details about the proposed amendments in June!

Ten Principles of Air Quality

Completing 338 air quality plans at the same time would be a huge job for any country. An even greater challenge is to assure that the plans have a degree of consistency of scope, efficacy of emission standards, and timing in order to meet China’s aggressive goals to improve air quality. Air pollution does not respect provincial or municipal boundaries, and energy-sector control measures could either complement or constrain China’s existing policies to rapidly increase renewable energy generation and improve energy efficiency. RAP teamed up with air quality experts from the Energy Foundation China, Clean Air Alliance for China, and Climate Works to author 10 Key Principles for Air Quality Managementa guide designed to help local and regional agencies develop consistent and effective plans. The principles are:

  1. Establish and implement a sound local air quality management structure;
  2. Ensure sufficient human and financial resources;
  3. Apply state-of-the-art scientific analysis;
  4. Establish emergency episode forecasting and response system;
  5. Develop control measures and prioritize based on cost-effectiveness,
  6. Embrace best available control technologies (BACT) and best available technologies (BAT);
  7. Optimize co-benefits for air pollutants and GHGs (greenhouse gases) when identifying and selecting control policies, measures, and technologies;
  8. Ensure adequate implementation and enforcement with incentives and penalties;
  9. Enhance transparency and encourage public participation; and
  10. Conduct regular monitoring and evaluation for continuous improvement.

Integrating energy policy considerations into air quality planning, as described in principle #7, is particularly important. Clean energy policies that address multiple pollutants will help cities meet public health, environment, and energy goals at a lower cost than individual control measures.

Updating China’s Air Law to give MEP the authority and flexibility to respond to air quality threats and equipping local and regional agencies with the tools to develop effective new air quality plans are both essential to sustain long-term progress toward China’s national “blue sky” goals. These efforts also complement the recently strengthened law, effective January 1, 2015, that substantially increases the penalties MEP can levy for violations of environmental standards. China’s leaders have backed their words with concrete actions, the results of which will achieve the Blue Sky goals desired by all. RAP looks forward to continuing a strong and productive working relationship with Chinese environmental officials to help them implement the new Air Law and to achieve its important public health and environmental objectives.