Beijing has taken a new pledge to clean up its air with plans for deep cuts in coal use and curbs on cars.
In the latest push to clear the capital's soot-soiled skies, Beijing's municipal government issued a five-year "action plan" on Sept. 2, vowing to remove 25 percent of the smallest smog-forming particles by 2017.
The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Bureau only began releasing reports on the fine particulates known as PM2.5 in 2012 after years of claiming progress in the number of "blue sky days."
But under the new plan, regulators are both recognizing the city's problem with PM2.5 and promising to fight it with tougher steps to control emissions from factories, homes, and cars.
"It's a declaration of war against PM2.5," the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said on its website, as cited by Reuters.
Among many measures, the bureau plans to lower coal use in the city by more than 50 percent from 2012 levels, reducing annual consumption by 13 million tons in five years, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The authorities would force 1,200 companies to clean up or close polluting production facilities.
Beijing would cap the number of vehicles on its roads at 6 million in 2017 from 5.35 million now by reducing new registrations. The city is also considering congestion fees.
Backed by central government
During an inspection tour of heating and power plants on Sept. 4, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli made clear that the city plan is backed by the central government.
"The strengthening of treatment efforts can no longer wait," said Zhang, according to Xinhua.
Last week, the State Council released a broad national policy that would bar new industrial projects from building their own coal-fired power plants in regions around the major city centers of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Among many measures, the government said it would cut coal's share in the nation's energy mix to less than 65 percent by 2017 from 68 percent now.
In its city plan, Beijing said it will stop issuing approvals for high-polluting projects and bar environmental violators from receiving bank loans.
Both the city and central governments have promised similar steps before, but a reading of the environmental bureau's lengthy web posting suggests the new rules may have teeth.
For one thing, each measure is listed with the responsible agency and leading official by name, giving the public a chance to hold them to account.
The National Meteorological Center (NMC) also began issuing forecasts of air pollution conditions on Sept. 1, Xinhua said.
The change in policies is partly due to posted air monitor readings from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy and public pressure from severe pollution that residents can see.
Beijing's plan would particularly target coal burning, aiming to reduce its share in the city's energy mix to less than 10 percent by 2017.
In June, a study co-authored by the international environmental group Greenpeace found that PM2.5 emissions from 196 coal-fired power plants in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region were responsible for 9,900 premature deaths and some 70,000 health cases in 2011.
Nearly 2,000 deaths were caused in Beijing alone, the researchers said.
Clouding the record
While the new goals represent a step forward, there are also signs of efforts to cloud the record of past performance with inconsistent or incomplete statistical data.
In its initial posting, the environmental bureau provided no estimate of the share of coal in the city's energy mix now or the amount burned in 2012, for example.
Instead, it gave an official target of 21.5 million tons for 2013 that has yet to be met. Xinhua later reported that city used 23 million tons of coal last year.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the National University of Singapore, said that figures from China's statistical yearbooks on energy show relatively constant coal consumption over the previous decade.
"Total coal use in Beijing actually rose from 25.7 million tons in 2001 to 26.3 million tons in 2010," said Andrews- Speed. "Over the same period, total energy consumption in Beijing rose by 67 percent."
"So, even if the proportion of coal use fell, the absolute quantity rose only marginally. It is no wonder that pollution has risen as the number of cars has grown, for the use of coal has not changed," Andrews-Speed said.
In November 2004, Beijing estimated its vehicle count at 2.27 million, according to a Xinhua report at the time. The number has soared by 135 percent in less than nine years.
Even with a cap of 6 million vehicles, the number would grow 12 percent from current levels.
Air quality readings
There may also be doubts about the bureau's goal of reducing PM 2.5 by at least 25 percent to 60 micrograms per cubic meter by 2017. The actual amount of improvement would depend on what readings and comparisons are used.
In March 2012, for example, Xinhua reported PM2.5 concentrations of 70 micrograms per cubic meter, classified as "fine" air quality conditions at the time.
But residents have been struggling with extreme spikes in smog as recently as last week, when the U.S. Embassy monitor recorded a reading of 213 micrograms per cubic meter, The New York Times said.
During the pollution crisis in January, PM2.5 readings climbed to 700 micrograms per cubic meter in many parts of Beijing, the Associated Press reported.
Even if the 60-microgram level is reached, Beijing would continue to suffer from serious pollution problems.
According to World Health Organization guidelines, 25 micrograms is the threshold for "significant health impacts from both long-term and daily exposures to PM2.5."
A regional issue
While cutting coal use in Beijing will help, there are bigger problems in the wider capital region, other reports suggest.
According to a report at the environmental website chinadialogue.net, Beijing's coal use is only a fraction of the consumption in surrounding Hebei province, which burned the equivalent of 389 million tons of the high-polluting fuel last year.
Under a Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) plan, the heavily industrialized province was supposed to be cutting the equivalent of 100 million tons of raw coal a year from its 2010 consumption of 350 million tons by 2017. But consumption has increased instead.
Beijing's goals may be relatively achievable, since 76 percent of its gross domestic product comes from the service sector, the website said.
But without strict controls throughout the region, the city's best efforts may be swamped by more soot, depending on the wind.
According to the Greenpeace study, Hebei's emissions are responsible for nearly 60 percent of the premature deaths in Beijing and Tianjin.
Another Xinhua report last week cited a Chinese Academy of Sciences finding that cars have replaced industry in Beijing as the top source of PM2.5, accounting for 22.2 percent of the particles in the air.