This winter, save a few grey days, the sky over Beijing has been a brilliant blue, suggesting the city may finally be making progress against air pollution – an issue so dire in previous years that some periods were dubbed an “airpocalypse”.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said that six cities in northern China reported falls in PM2.5 haze of at least 40% compared with a year earlier, including Beijing where the average PM2.5 level dropped by two-thirds (PM2.5 refers to hazardous particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers that can be inhaled into the lungs).

President Xi Jinping had reiterated that China would keep up its years-long battle against smog to ensure “blue skies” and promote a “revolution” in clean energy at the opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, reported Reuters.

Improving the notoriously toxic air across the northern regions of the world’s second-largest economy has been a cornerstone of Beijing’s economic and social policy in recent years.

China had ordered factories to cut output in a bid to enforce bigger emission cuts and avoid a repeat of the near-record levels of choking smog that enveloped key northern areas in the winter of 2016/7.

The most-watched China Central Television 7pm news broadcast prominently features environment-related stories daily, along with Xi’s words “green mountains and clear water are equal to mountains of gold and silver”.

The central government has sent inspection teams to provinces and municipalities to investigate complaints of pollution and force local officials to act.

Beijing has made progress on improving its air quality thanks to stricter controls. – AFP

In August, the Ministry of Environmental Protection pledged to cut PM2.5 haze by more than 15% in 28 northern cities between October and March. Communist party cadres would be held responsible if pollution reached alarming levels, it said.

In recent years, authorities have ordered polluting factories to leave Beijing and its surroundings, and designated “no-coal zones” where more than three million homes have abruptly switched to gas or electric heating.

The battle continues

Enforcement of environmental regulations was previously applied primarily to larger, state-owned enterprises, said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Huang Wei. Now, smaller businesses in the wider region are also being investigated for illegal smog-worsening practices.

“Now the focus is on these local – and often more difficult to manage – corporations as well,” she told AFP.

Prominent environmentalist Ma Jun said growing public awareness and pressure has played a key role in improving air quality.

Ma, who penned a major book on China’s pollution crisis, developed an online platform displaying official data on companies’ environmental violations, which people increasingly use to call out (“name and shame”) irresponsible corporations.

As China nears the end of its five-year plan for fighting smog, experts and activists called for a new strategy for long-term success.

This is how bad Beijing’s air used to be just one year ago (Jan 6, 2017). – Bloomberg

A Greenpeace analysis released this month found that while PM2.5 levels in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding cities declined 33.1% year-on-year in the last three months of 2017, for the full year it fell just 4.5% around the country.

An analysis by Reuters also showed that pollution had increased in cities of Heilongjiang, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces outside the pollution action plan zone.

“China’s national air pollution action plan has brought massive reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks, but policies favouring coal and heavy industry are (still) holding back progress,” Huang Wei told Reuters.

Strong northerly winds this winter would have improved the air quality regardless of human intervention, Huang said, though government measures have no doubt bolstered blue skies.

Nevertheless, the cleaner air around Beijing has been a “turning point” achievement, said Xu Yuan, an air pollution policy expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as reported by AFP. He believes pollution will “rebound”, although the long-term outlook is positive.

“We hope that people won’t be satisfied yet,” he said.