Ground Level Ozone Pollution: How China Balances Coal Power Growth, Air Quality, Health, & Economy

The emissions from coal power plants and various industries are contributing to the increase in ground-level ozone pollution. This ozone crisis leads to health problems, including respiratory diseases and reduced workforce productivity, resulting in higher healthcare costs and economic challenges for the country.
For a deeper dive into this issue and to explore the detailed statistics and insights, we invite you to read the full article by China Dialogue. All the numbers and figures are sourced from their comprehensive analysis.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Ozone Pollution Surges in China: Despite a decade of progress in reducing air pollution, China is facing a new challenge as ground-level ozone levels rise significantly, with over 42% of cities exceeding national ozone standards. This invisible pollutant is linked to industrial emissions, posing health risks and environmental concerns.
  2.  Coal Power and “Two High” Industries Contribute: Emissions from coal power plants and energy-intensive industries, known as “two high” sectors, play a major role in ozone precursors, such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The resurgence of approvals for coal power plants and “two high” projects threatens to worsen ozone pollution and strain environmental governance efforts.
  3.  Economic Implications: The pursuit of economic growth tied to polluting industries appears unsustainable, as these sectors saw declining profits despite increased emissions. China’s local governments’ prioritization of economic gains over environmental concerns raises questions about the long-term sustainability of this approach. Addressing ozone pollution offers an opportunity to simultaneously combat other forms of pollution and reduce carbon emissions, potentially leading to a more sustainable development model.
Measures to combat ground level ozone pollution in China amid coal power growth, health, and economic concerns.

China’s Quiet Pollution Threat: Ozone’s Sneaky Rise Beneath Clear Beijing Skies

In the heart of Beijing, where clear skies have returned thanks to a decade of relentless air pollution control efforts, a less visible yet equally dangerous problem is taking hold.

During the first half of this year, China has seen a troubling uptick in ozone levels. By June 14th, a whopping 42.4% of cities had breached the national secondary ozone standard, which stands at 160 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). The regions hit hardest include Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Yangtze River Delta, with ozone now surpassing PM2.5 as the top air quality concern in the capital.

So, what’s causing this stealthy pollution surge? Ground-level ozone pollution emerges when specific airborne chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, react under sunlight. These pollutants trace their roots back to industrial emissions, car exhaust, and the evaporation of organic solvents like spray paint. It’s no coincidence that they are closely associated with energy-hungry, high-carbon industries known in China as “two high” sectors.

Ironically, as China started resuming normal life and economic activities following pandemic lockdowns, it also ushered in a new wave of challenges. The 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025 set ambitious targets to reduce carbon intensity and total coal consumption. However, in the first half of 2023, many provinces have exploited exceptions that allow them to sidestep these goals when approving “specially designated projects.”

The outcome? Approvals for more coal power plants and ‘two high’ projects, leading to a surge in industrial emissions. Unfortunately, this uptick threatens to exacerbate ozone pollution and pose considerable challenges to future environmental governance.

Ozone Surges as a Major Air Pollutant in China

In the ongoing battle against air pollution in China, it’s been a decade since the State Council unveiled its comprehensive ten-point action plan. This commitment was later reinforced in 2018 with a three-year action plan, concentrating efforts on crucial regions such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Fen and Wei river plains, and the Yangtze Delta. These initiatives intensified the fight against pollution, leading to significant progress: average PM2.5 levels dropped consistently for ten years, plummeting from 72 µg/m3 in 2013 to a remarkable 29 µg/m3 by late 2022. This achievement even surpassed the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 35 µg/m3.

Yet, amidst these achievements, a new challenge has emerged. In 2022, ozone overtook PM2.5 as the primary contributor to air pollution.

Unlike particulate matter, ozone remains invisible and odorless, detectable only through specialized monitoring equipment. Its elusive nature makes it challenging to implement immediate responses. However, prolonged exposure to ozone can lead to respiratory ailments, central nervous system disorders, and compromised immune systems, underlining the need for urgent attention.

In a study unveiled in March, a concerning trend came to light: the percentage of people in China exposed to excessive ozone levels, surpassing the national limit of 160 µg/m3, soared from a mere 1.2% in 2013 to a staggering 28.9% in 2018. Even more distressing, the study estimated that over 20,000 individuals per year were facing premature deaths due to respiratory diseases linked to ozone exposure.

While the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) successfully slashed PM2.5 levels by 30%, one major atmospheric pollutant failed to follow suit: ozone. In a stark contrast, ozone levels remained stubbornly high.

Fast forward to November 2022, and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment stepped in with a crucial action plan. This initiative aimed to reduce the number of days marked by severe air pollution, specifically targeting the persistent issues of ozone and diesel truck pollution. This plan not only built upon previous efforts but also marked a significant milestone in addressing the mounting ozone pollution and overall heavy air pollution problems. Central to this plan was the imperative task of curbing the emission of ozone precursors.

Why is Ozone Pollution on the Rise?

Ozone pollution is becoming an increasingly pressing concern, and the reasons behind this alarming trend are multifaceted.

One significant contributor to ozone pollution is the emission of its chemical precursors, primarily originating from coal power plants and industries such as steel, glass, and petrochemical processing. To tackle the ozone problem effectively, a crucial strategy involves reducing these emissions, especially nitrogen oxides, which are 1.7 times more prevalent than volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and play a pivotal role in ozone formation.

In 2021, China’s power sector emerged as the largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, accounting for a substantial 33.1%. Much of these emissions emanate from coal power plants, revealing a concerning link between China’s economic growth and rising ozone levels. This situation is further exacerbated by increasing temperatures, a consequence of climate change.

Comparatively, ozone pollution has been a persistent issue in North America since the 1940s, notably exemplified by Los Angeles’ experience with photochemical smog. Over the decades, the United States invested significantly in understanding ozone formation and its effects, adopting region-specific strategies to address emissions.

In Los Angeles, a transition from a petrochemical-based industry to a high-tech and service-sector economy allowed for both environmental protection and economic growth. This shift effectively reduced emissions at the source, leading to a significant decrease in ozone pollution.

The European Union also took action by implementing a 2016 directive aimed at reducing national emissions of atmospheric pollutants. This directive emphasizes protecting nature and human health through investments in clean and efficient technologies, employing innovative methods to combat pollution at its source.

Unfortunately, as the economy rebounds following the pandemic’s worst impacts, 2023 has witnessed a surge in investment and output within energy- and carbon-intensive sectors like chemicals, steel, power, and fossil-fuel processing. This resurgence has led to increased emissions of nitrogen oxides and VOCs, causing air-pollution mitigation efforts to falter in many regions during the first half of the year.

Between January and June, 339 Chinese cities at the prefecture level or above reported a 3.2% year-on-year decrease in the number of days with excellent or good air quality. Conversely, the number of days with heavy or severe pollution increased by 1.4%. These figures correspond with rising levels of nitrogen dioxide, PM2.5, and PM10.

Local governments, reliant on these investments to bolster their struggling economies, have deprioritized environmental concerns. Industries contributing to ozone pollution have experienced steady growth, with the top three industrial emitters of nitrogen oxides and VOCs showing notable increases.

Despite expectations of economic benefits, profits in these sectors plummeted during the first half of 2023. Extra pollution has failed to improve the overall economic outlook.

Industries linked to ozone pollution have witnessed some of the most significant profit declines across the board. The non-metallic mineral products sector saw a staggering drop of 26.6%, while the ferrous metal smelting and rolling sector suffered a staggering 97.6% decline. Oil, coal, and other fuel processing reported a decline of 92.3%, and the chemicals and chemical products sector witnessed a 52.2% decrease in profits.

It is becoming increasingly evident that economic growth tied to the ‘two high’ industries is not just environmentally detrimental but is also likely to falter in the long run.

Is China’s ‘Two High’ Approach Hindering Environmental Progress?

The growing concern surrounding the surge in ozone pollution is closely linked to the ‘two high’ industries, which contribute significant emissions of ozone precursors, namely nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These two pollutants often go hand in hand. The major provincial emitters, such as Hebei, Shandong, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Zhejiang, are predominantly located along China’s east coast. These regions have witnessed the rapid expansion of large industrial sectors and have become critical battlegrounds in the ongoing fight against air pollution.

Despite these concerns, a review of the 14th five-year plans for these economies reveals a concerning trend: numerous approvals for coal power plants and ‘two high’ projects, all operating under the umbrella of ‘special designations’ that circumvent environmental restrictions.

Reports suggest that Guangdong and Zhejiang secured national-level approval to exempt new coal power projects from energy targets. Under the rules governing such exemptions, the environmental impacts of energy consumed by these specially designated projects are conveniently overlooked.

In both Guangdong’s and Zhejiang’s 14th five-year plans, the petrochemical sector enjoys strategic importance. Academics and experts have voiced apprehensions that significant new petrochemical projects in Zhejiang could undermine environmental objectives. Despite these concerns, the Zhoushan Petrochemical Base project received approval for three phases, ultimately leading to a staggering annual carbon emissions figure of 50 million tonnes. Strikingly, environmental considerations were excluded from local planning decisions.

Adding to the environmental conundrum, Zhejiang’s 2023 list of key projects prominently features four major petrochemical facilities, backed by a whopping 260 billion yuan (US$35.7 billion) in investment—more than half of the total funding allocation for the list. Publicly available information reveals Zhejiang’s pursuit of ‘special designation’ for additional ‘two high’ projects, effectively sidelining concerns about energy consumption once again.

A 2021 document from the People’s Consultative Conference in Zhejiang’s Ningbo city advocated for the removal of energy-consumption quotas, particularly for a trillion-yuan green petrochemical cluster. The document proposed the allocation of an extra energy-consumption quota for the cluster or the sharing of its quota across the province. Ultimately, it argued for the relaxation of approval restrictions on petrochemical projects in Zhejiang, citing its status as one of China’s seven major petrochemical bases.

The persistent prioritization of ‘two high’ industries raises questions about their impact on environmental progress and the sustainability of this approach in the long run.

Addressing the Root of the Problem

The persistent approval of ‘two high’ projects in major provincial economies has concerning consequences. It amplifies the dominance of heavy industry in the economic landscape, elevates pollution and carbon emission levels to new highs, and ultimately poses severe economic risks for the future.

This situation calls for serious attention from provincial policymakers. There appears to be a greater zeal for chasing short-term economic gains than for effectively combatting the rising threat of ozone pollution.

Evidence analyzed by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reveals that local governments have merely embraced the national air pollution target, aimed at reducing nitrogen oxide and VOC emissions by 10% between 2020 and 2025. Remarkably, this approach is applied uniformly across provinces, regardless of their unique emission levels and economic conditions.

No province has taken the initiative to set more ambitious targets for themselves. Even industrial powerhouses like Hebei and Shandong, with ample room for emissions reduction, and affluent manufacturing hubs like Zhejiang and Jiangsu, have either adopted the national target without adaptation or failed to provide concrete figures. This trend extends to Shanghai, which, despite setting its target relatively late in April, followed suit with the national objective.

During the early summer of this year, Hebei employed pollution forecasts to curtail the operations of steel and cement manufacturers, power plants, and VOC-emitting companies during periods of elevated pollution risk. While such ad hoc measures can help mitigate ozone pollution, the more critical necessity lies in restructuring local industrial foundations. Key enterprises must establish emission reduction targets and diligently manage their emissions.

Effectively addressing ozone pollution offers an opportunity for local governments to simultaneously combat other forms of pollution and reduce carbon emissions. This approach could pave the way for a more resilient and environmentally sustainable development model.