“The residents of many of China’s largest cities are living under long-term, harmful air quality conditions,” Zhao Weijun, deputy director of the air pollution department of NEPA, reported in 1997 in China Environment News . China has long recognized air pollution as a critical problem. Ambient concentrations of total suspended particulates (TSP) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) are among the world’s highest. (See China’s Air Pollution Levels Are Among the World’s Highest.) In 1995, more than one half of the 88 cities monitored for SO2 were above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. All but two of the 87 cities monitored for TSP far exceeded WHO’s guideline. Some cities such as Taiyuan and Lanzhou had SO2 levels almost 10 times the WHO guideline .
Largely because of controls at power plants and within households, particulate emissions have not risen as much as might have been expected with the doubling of coal consumption. Overall, particulate emissions in China have remained relatively level since the early 1980s . In fact, in some large cities, ambient particulate concentrations have decreased markedly since the 1980s . In contrast, SO2 emissions have roughly paralleled the increase in coal consumption, reflecting heavy coal burning and inadequate sulfur control measures.
Coal burning, the primary source of China’s high SO2 emissions, accounts for more than three quarters of the country’s commercial energy needs, compared with 17 percent in Japan and a world average of 27 percent . China’s consumption of raw coal increased annually by 2 percent between 1989 and 1993 . (See China’s Growing Consumption of Coal.) Meanwhile, SO2 emissions increased by more than 20 percent and TSP increased by approximately 10 percent . The country is expected to burn 1.5 billion metric tons of coal annually by the year 2000, up from 0.99 billion metric tons in 1990 . Without even more dramatic measures to control emissions than are currently in place, the deterioration of air quality seems inevitable.
Particulates and SO2 are the ambient air pollutants of greatest concern; both are byproducts of coal combustion. While industrial emissions of heavy metals and toxics are also significant contributors to air pollution in China, they are not routinely monitored and will not be addressed in this section.
The extent and type of air pollution in China vary dramatically by geographic region. SO2 and particulate emissions are highest in the northern half of China, where coal is used to heat homes and other buildings for several months of the year and where industrial centers also depend heavily on coal burning. Yet, air pollution in the North would be much worse if not for the higher quality, cleaner coal that is available there. By contrast, the coal mined in the South is high in sulfur and extremely polluting, contributing to serious problems with acid precipitation, especially in the southwest provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan .
Industry accounts for two thirds of China’s coal use – industrial boilers alone consume 30 percent of China’s coal. These boilers are usually highly inefficient and emit through low smoke stacks, contributing to much of China’s ground-level air pollution, especially small particulates and SO2. Inefficient and dirty boilers are particularly problematic because many of the industries that use them are located in densely populated metropolitan areas, placing populations in these areas at high risk of exposure. The residential sector accounts for approximately 15 percent of total coal use, yet is estimated to contribute to more than 30 percent of urban ground-level air pollution  .
16. Fang Cai, “Stare Into the Sky<197>When Will It be Clear?,” China Environment News (January 21, 1997), p. 1.
17. National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), National Environmental Quality Report, 1991<196>1995 (NEPA, Beijing, 1996), pp. 5, 15.
18. Op cit. 12, pp. 8<196>9.
19. China Environment Yearbook, China Environment Yearbook, various issues (China Environment Yearbook Press, Beijing, various years) (Chinese language editions).
20. International Energy Agency, Energy Statistics and Balances: Non-OECD Countries, 1971<196>1995, and Energy Statistics and Balances: OECD Countries, 1960<196>1995, both on diskette (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Paris, 1997).
21. Op. cit. 2, p. iv-11.
22. Op. cit. 19.
23. Op. cit. 7, p. 43.
24. Op. cit. 2, p. viii-2.
25. Op. cit. 12, pp. 21<196>22, map 1.
26. Op. cit. 12, pp. 8, 46.
27. Op. cit. 2, p. v-4.