Top Ten Principles for Clean Air in China

By Hal Harvey

(Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen)
(Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen)


China’s air quality has become so bad that it literally takes years off a person’s life. According to one study, air pollution reduces the life expectancy of citizens in northern China by 5.5 years. Fortunately, the steps to clean the air are also helpful in modernizing the economy, reducing climate change gases, and making cities more livable.

The Paulson Institute, the Energy Foundation China and Energy Innovation LLC, along with several Chinese experts and groups, held the Restoring Blue Skies Air Quality Workshop, which discussed the most promising efforts that China could take to solve its air pollution problems.

One of the top insights from the Workshop is that China must build a modern system for monitoring air pollution, issuing permits, and enforcing standards.  This requires institutional reform, giving environmental protection bureaus a clear mandate, adequate resources, and authority to get the job done.  A second finding is that “co-control”—reducing both greenhouse gases and air pollution at the same time—is far more cost-effective than doing them one at a time.

At the Workshop, some 70 of the world’s top experts on air quality—about 50 Chinese, and 20 international—laid out both the principles and the methods for winning this battle.

Top 10 Principles:

  1. Establish a sound local air quality management structure: Every region needs an unambiguous clean air authority. Large regions covering several cities (e.g. Jing-Jin-Ji region) should have a unified authority with the ability to set standards, issue permits, and enforce reductions;
  2. Ensure sufficient human and financial resources: Public and private expenditures on pollution control must be sufficient to achieve the ultimate objective of clean and healthy air. This will require increased budgets, better planning and analysis, and more high-quality inspectors. Proper design of enforcement programs can minimize the chance of evasion or corruption;
  3. Apply state-of-the-art scientific analysis: Science must guide air pollution control programs to set ambient concentration levels, identify and track pollution sources, understand atmospheric chemistry, find the cheapest reduction opportunities, and track progress;
  4. Establish emergency episode forecasting and response system: The government should respond promptly and effectively to major air quality episodes to minimize serious public health impacts. Measures should be established in advance for rapid response;
  5. Develop control measures and prioritize based on cost-effectiveness: The government should pursue the most cost-effective measures first to sustain government, public, and private support for air quality regulations;
  6. Require the use of Best Available Control Technologies (BACT), the stringent standard required by the US Environmental Protection Agency: Rapidly moving to a BACT standard can accelerate clean-up, give industries a clear pathway, and accelerate technology development;
  7. Optimize co-benefits for air pollutants and GHGs (greenhouse gases) when identifying and selecting control policies, measures, and technologies: The integration of policies that combine air pollutant and GHG reductions will be cheaper and more effective than pursuing separate solutions for air pollution and climate change;
  8. Ensure adequate implementation and enforcement with incentives and penalties: Penalties for non-compliance should be substantial enough to discourage misbehavior and to prevent bad actors from gaining a competitive advantage;
  9. Enhance transparency and encourage public participation: The public should be kept informed to generate trust in the government’s air quality decisions;
  10. Conduct regular monitoring and evaluation for continuous improvement: Progress should be regularly monitored, using quantifiable metrics that are confirmed by independent air quality measurements. Plans should be updated every three to five years to reflect new information.

Cities around the world—most notably Los Angeles and Mexico City, but many others as well—have proven that the patterns of air pollution can be reversed with the right resources and programs. Taking this issue on at a national level will likely be a challenge for China, but the demand for clear skies is strong and potential benefits of such efforts are immense.

Hal Harvey is CEO of Energy Innovation LLC and a Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Paulson Institute.