Provinces in China commit to air pollution targets

In January, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced the signature of “air pollution control and target responsibility” contracts (大气污染防治目标责任书) that bind all 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions in China to air pollution reduction targets for particulate matter air pollution. These are contracts are significant because they tie leaders’ performance directly to salaries and promotions, signaling the top leadership’s commitment to tackling air pollution. However, not meeting the targets does not necessarily mean that a government official would be fired. In fact, according to the official announcement, failure to pass annual assessments toward targets results in an MEP inspection of the organization’s department, demerits reported to department supervision, interviews with responsible parties, and suggestions for rectification. Most importantly, these contracts have the backing of the State Council, the chief administrative body of the People’s Republic of China.

What’s interesting about this announcement and the targets (see Table 1 below) is that not all provinces and municipalities have signed on to PM2.5 reduction targets – only the most developed and areas with the worst area pollution, including Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding 6 provinces are taking on targets to tackle fine particulate matter or (PM2.5, the invisible pollutants that have harmful health effects). From first glance, the targets Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province have signed on to – a 25 percent annual decrease in PM2.5 concentration – looks ambitious, considering PM2.5 levels in Beijing over the last few years have stagnated (see the 2014 Environmental Performance Index for PM2.5 concentration data derived from satellite analysis for China as a whole here). Although the MEP released a statement (in Chinese) shortly following Chinese New Year that January 2014 has already seen less air pollution than the same time last year, when “airpocalyptic” levels of PM2.5 reached over 755 micrograms/m3.

To achieve these reductions, the official press statement has said that Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding 6 provinces will have clear cut coal reduction targets, eliminate backward production capacity, integrated air pollution control, renovation of boilers, motor vehicle pollution control, dust control, capacity building, and annual quantitative targets. Other provinces will adopt targets to reduce coarse particulate matter or PM10, which refers to pollutants with a diameter of 10 microns or less and more directly tied to dust, construction, and agriculture as opposed to fossil fuel combustion. These differential targets allow less-economically developed provinces and municipalities to continue to grow, while taking a more gradual approach to pollution reduction. They are charged instead with “general principles and measures” to reduce air pollution.


Table 1. Air quality improvement targets for China’s 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions vary according to level of economic development. *Note: “Continuous improvement” is the direct translation for targets for Hainan, Tibet, and Yunnan. This is because air pollution in these provinces are the lowest, see Figure 1, and Yunnan and Tibet are two of the poorest provinces in China. Source:


Figure 1. Average exposure to PM2.5 (in micrograms/m3) in China’s provinces in 2012. Data developed by our team at Yale, Columbia, and Dalhousie Universities. Source:

Of course, there is always a question of how effective these “responsibility contracts” will be. Researchers have discovered problems with responsibility contracts having unintended consequences, such as data manipulation (see Sinton, 2001; Zhang et al., 2007; Akimoto et al., 2006; Liu and Yang, 2009; Guan et al., 2012; citations below) that result from perverse incentives to achieve targets at all costs. While the papers I cited suggest that there are problems with data reporting, particularly due to China’s decentralized governance system (see here a paper I wrote about some of the challenges provincial environmental protection bureaus face with respect to monitoring and reporting), the central government’s requiring 15,o00 enterprises to release real-time pollution data will add transparency to simply reported statistics, which we know to be problematic. The move to require real-time disclosure of pollution data from some of China’s most polluting enterprises to me adds extra teeth to these responsibility contracts that weren’t there previously.


Papers about issues in China’s energy or environment statistics:

Akimoto, H., T. Ohara, J. Kurokawa, N. Horii. 2006. Verification of energy consumption in China during 1996-2003 by using satellite observational data. Atmospheric Environment, 40:7663-7667.

Guan, D., Liu, Z., Geng, Y., Lindner, S., & Hubacek, K. (2012). The gigatonne gap in China/’s carbon dioxide inventories. Nature Climate Change2(9), 672-675.

Liu, J. and H. Yang. 2009. China fights against statistical corruption. Science, 7:675:676.

Sinton, J. 2001. Accuracy and reliability of China’s energy statistics. China Economic Review, 12:373- 383.

Zhang, Q., D.G. Streets, K. He, Y. Wang, A. Richter, J.P. Burrows, I. Uno, C.J. Jang, D. Chen, Z. Yao, and Y. Lei. 2007. NOx emission trends for China, 1995-2004: the view from the ground and the view from space. Journal of Geophysical Research. Vol. H2.



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