A national legislator and leading environmental expert has warned of possible challenges to further improve air quality in the Fenhe-Weihe River Plain area this year, one of the regions with the worst air quality in the country, amid the economic downward pressure worsened by COVID-19.
While some enterprises and local governments might loosen requirements on environmental protection as companies resume production disrupted by the epidemic, local authorities in the area might prioritize launching some heavy industrial projects, such as chemical and coke, to help revive battered economies, said Wang Jinnan, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning.
These new projects "will be unfavorable to sustain the optimization of the industrial and energy consuming structures", which have contributed a great deal to air quality improvement in the area covering 11 cities in Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan provinces, said Wang, a member of the Shanxi delegation to the 13th National People's Congress.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the area overfulfilled its target for air pollution control in the past heating supply season, traditionally the period with the worst air quality because of the increase in coal consumption for heating.
With dual targets of reducing both the average density of PM2.5 particulate matter and the number of days with heavy pollution by 3 percent year-on-year, the area managed to bring down pollutant concentration by 11.4 percent and saw a 34.8 percent plunge in days classified as heavily polluted.
Wang said North China's Shanxi, four of whose total 11 prefecture-level cities are located in the area, "experienced marked improvement in air quality in the past heating supply season and local people have seen their sense of gain further strengthened with more blue skies".
Shanxi provincial authorities have shown resolute determination in optimizing industrial structure to promote high quality development. The province phased out 4 million metric tons of steel producing capacity and 18.83 million tons of coke producing capacity in the past two years, he said.
He said the province also has made great efforts in reducing coal consumption while promoting extra low emission in smokestack industries. Since 2018, about 2.4 million households in the province have shifted from coal to electricity or natural gas as a heating source. Over 10,000 coal-fired boilers have been phased out.
According to Shanxi's Department of Ecology and Environment, the province saw densities of the six major air pollutants, including PM2.5 and ozone, all decrease for the first time in the past heating supply season.
Despite the achievement, "we should be clear-minded that the air pollution control situation remains grim in Shanxi and the Fenhe-Weihe River Plain area", Wang noted.
The average density of PM2.5 in the plain area stood at 55 micrograms per cubic meter in 2019, which is 52 percent higher than the national average.
The area also experienced smaller air quality improvement in the past heating supply season compared with the other two key regions for air pollution control — the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei province cluster and the Yangtze River Delta, he continued.
Against the backdrop, the optimization of industrial and energy-consuming structures should be continued to help improve air quality in the area. While the efficiency in coal consumption should be further promoted, the area should also intensify exploitation of unconventional gas and increase the ratio of electricity in overall energy consumption, he said.