Restoring Blue Skies
Energy Foundation China recognized in 2008 that China’s weak environmental protection laws would lead to increasingly dire environmental degradation, especially air pollution. After a series of expert consultations, the foundation set up the China Environmental Management Program (CEMP).
Integrating PM2.5 into China’s new air quality standard
When CEMP was established, China’s Ambient Air Quality Standard was weaker than its international counterparts. It covered pollutants such as PM10, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—but not the highly hazardous PM2.5, particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter.
CEMP supported a study by the China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) on improving air quality standards and organized workshops on developing standards for PM2.5 and ozone. CRAES was the right partner: It had the strongest capacity, housed the Environmental Standards Institute, which drafts all of China’s environmental standards, and was affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and therefore in close proximity to key decision-makers.
CEMP also supported Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering to perform an economic analysis of the health impacts of PM2.5 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, and brought in international experts—including Catherine Witherspoon, former executive officer of the California Air Resources Board—to offer advice on revising the standard. We also supported the Global Village of Beijing, an organization with experience in providing sustainable energy education to Chinese journalists, which held a media and NGO training session on PM2.5.
Meanwhile, air pollution continued to get worse. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing began publishing air quality data and the media began to more aggressively report on the issue. Public outrage grew.
In February 2012, the State Council of China adopted a revised standard, which reflected many of the specific policy recommendations of Energy Foundation China-supported international experts—and PM2.5 became a mandatory standard for the first time.
Advocating for regional air pollution prevention and control
As CEMP moved forward with its work, it found that the "air basin" concept and regional air quality management in Western countries hadn't gained serious attention in China. Yet regional and compound air pollution had become two of China’s most prominent environmental challenges.
CEMP supported Tsinghua and Renmin universities, the MEP-affiliated Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP), and other institutions in research to help familiarize China’s air quality community with regional air pollution prevention and control practices. Recognizing that early engagement and buy-in from policymakers would be important, CEMP also signed a memorandum of understanding with MEP in 2009 to support this effort.
In 2010, the State Council released the Guidance for Promoting Joint Air Pollution Prevention and Control and Improving Regional Air Quality. Endorsed by nine ministries and government departments, including MEP, the document provided guiding principles for promoting regional joint air-pollution prevention and control. It also identified the regions of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta as key air-pollution prevention and control areas. This new and important way of conceptualizing China’s air pollution challenge was then also reflected in the 12th Five-year Plan for Air Pollution Prevention for Key Regions jointly released by MEP, the Ministry of Finance, and the National Development and Reform Commission in 2012, and the Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control released by the State Council in September 2013.
The Guidance was also the first high-level government policy to propose piloting a "coal cap" in specific regions. The follow-on 2013 Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control identified targets for regional coal caps. For example, by 2017 the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta must report decreases in coal consumption.
Promoting the third revision to the Law on the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution
The most important part of the solution to China’s air quality problem is putting in place a strong legal framework.
With the third amendment of China’s Law on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution now under way, CEMP is working to ensure the law has teeth. In 2009, CEMP supported the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Regulatory Assistance Project, and other organizations in a review of international air pollution legislation, which led to the report, Amending China’s Air Law: Recommendations from the International Experience. CEMP helped get the report to policymakers, who are now using it as a reference in the amendment process.
While building the case for a stronger national-level law, CEMP realized it could also work to revise local air-quality regulations. In 2011, CEMP joined hands with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, supporting grantee Beijing Municipal Academy of Environmental Sciences’ in suggesting revisions to the Beijing Regulation on Air Pollution Control. In March 2014, a revision was issued, significantly strengthening the penalties for non-compliance and repeated violations.
Clean Air Alliance of China and Blue Sky Defense Fund
The Chinese government has low capacity in air pollution prevention and control, so it still relies on outside expertise for support. To grow the field of air quality specialists, CEMP in 2013 provided seed funding for the Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC), which brings together China’s core air quality research institutes. CAAC facilitates the transfer of scientific knowledge to policymakers on air pollution prevention and control, helps to design policy implementation tools, and provides technical support to decision-makers.
CEMP also invests in the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), an independent Chinese environmental NGO, to create an air quality information transparency index and the Blue Sky Roadmap, which discloses air quality and pollution source information. The foundation worked with the SEE Foundation—China’s largest private environmental foundation focused on supporting local environmental NGOs—on initiating a fund to bring more domestic NGOs into air-pollution prevention and control efforts. In September 2014, the Alibaba Foundation and other funders, such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Oak Foundation, also joined the fund.
China’s air quality challenge is daunting. It involves a wide variety of factors and links together policy areas that in the past have been addressed separately. Everyone is looking forward to the day when China’s blue skies return. CEMP is helping to create the building blocks for this to happen.