This case study looks at one of the factors behind the Chinese government’s increasing regulation of air pollution in major cities, namely increasing calls by the public – including on social media – to address levels of PM2.598 and PM10. This has resulted in the 2013-2017 Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution and policies to limit coal use near large cities.
Levels of air pollution in China have been rising over the last few decades, in conjunction with industrialization and urbanization, and subsequent growing emissions from motor vehicles, coal-fired plants, industrial production and construction. This is reflected in China’s ranking on the environmental sustainability sub-index of the EAPI (111th). Levels of PM10 are particularly high (108th for this indicator), while CO2 emissions from electricity production are some of the highest in the world (109th).
The Chinese government was initially relatively slow in responding to rising air pollution, until growing public awareness and pressure on social media led it to update the decade-old National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in 2012 with the inclusion of PM2.5 and ozone standards.99
Public scrutiny of the government’s response to air pollution has increased in conjunction with a number of trigger events, including the publication of PM2.5 levels by the US Embassy in 2011, and northern China’s so-called “airpocalypse” in January 2013, when it suffered from one of the worst smog episodes of air pollution in local history. These high levels of air pollution sparked public attention and pressure to tackle the issue, putting reduction of local air pollution at the top of the government’s agenda, and prompting a 10-point plan to tackle the problem.
Social media allows the Chinese public to access air pollution information online on the so-called “green public sphere”.100 Online information travels at high speed – when the US Embassy in Beijing started to publicize city levels of PM2.5 on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) in 2011, the attention of a few individuals quickly became a “public obsession”. Sales of masks and filters soared. With the new NAAQS being implemented in more than 160 cities across China, national air quality data was officially disclosed and routinely recorded on Weibo and through smart phone apps.101 Additionally, a number of influential micro-bloggers – the so-called “Big Vs” – started discussing the issue via their social media feeds.102 As a result, air pollution challenges are now truly on the public radar; 47% of Chinese say air pollution is a “very big” problem in their country, and public scrutiny of the government’s response has intensified.103
The government has responded swiftly to this public pressure, announcing a range of measures both at local and national levels. In 2011, the government began providing more accurate data on air quality. At the local level, it has set up a number of air quality monitoring stations across the largest cities. At the national level, in September 2013 the government launched the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, as well as regulations to limit new coal projects in smoggy areas in North China, Shanghai and Guangdong. Finally, the Ministry of Environmental Protection – historically relatively weak in its administrative powers compared to other ministries – has recently been given more authority to act on air pollution, given the changing situation.
In addition to sustaining public trust in this issue, the government needs to build administrative capacity to understand the sources of pollution and the mitigation remedies required and, crucially, to implement them. The recent climate deal reached between the United States and China has been touted as a “historic agreement” that commits both countries to cuts in their nations’ carbon emissions, and fundamentally shifted the global politics of climate change. But looking back on history, the people-led change in air pollution policies may be credited with having a far greater impact on China’s carbon emissions than external pressures to address climate change.104