As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is under increasing pressure both domestically as well as internationally to put air pollution under control. Accordingly, China has taken some steps in order to address this issue.


As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is under increasing pressure both domestically as well as internationally to put air pollution under control. Accordingly, China has taken some steps in order to address this issue.  Its efforts seem to have yielded some positive results as it has succeeded in “reducing air pollution since 2008.” According to a Bloomberg report, China’s air pollution declined by 40 per cent during 2013-2020. Furthermore, in 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China’s goals to reach carbon-peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. In the backdrop of these developments, China’s approach to air pollution control, specifically the politics behind that approach, deserves greater attention, as the CCP gathers its momentum in tackling an issue that has assumed not only national but also global significance.

As a result of rapid economic growth, China became increasingly engulfed with severe smog. Subsequently, air pollution became “highly politicized” in China as a “major concern.” Hence, besides economic development, maintaining good air quality became an important currency for gathering political support and thus, regime stability. As   prolonged exposure to air pollution” could be linked to “lax or weakly enforced environmental standards,” it is “relatively straightforward” for the public to attribute air pollution to poor governance. This important link between air pollution and regime stability precisely explains the rationale behind governmental efforts in addressing this issue. The CCP, commensurate to these goals, started rolling out China’s national air pollution control plans since 2013, during which the landmark Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (APPCAP) came out. Arguably China’s “most influential environmental policy,” it helped make “significant improvements” in its air quality between 2013 and 2017. With subsequent roll outs of the second APPCAP in 2018 and the third in 2023, these plans covered more cities, more pollutants and declared transitioning to clean energy as a key goal- which emphasised three new industries- solar cells, lithium battery and Electric Vehicle manufacturing.

The CCP’s efforts in air pollution mediation also coincided with major political events in China. The Party Congress of the CCP convened every five years is, in particular, a major indicator of air quality change.  According to some studies, it was found that air pollution has been “significantly reduced in the year before and after the Party Congress.”   This phenomenon may be rationalised as such- in the year immediately before and after the Congress, due to political uncertainty with regards to elections of government officials, companies are skeptical to invest, resulting in reduced economic activity, thus leading to improved air quality. Similar improvements were reportedly achieved during both the 2008 and the 2022 Beijing Olympics. For instance, in order to fulfill its environmental commitments in its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, China invested 21 billion dollars in air quality improvements, such as upgrading coal-burning boilers and inducing natural gas-run public buses, inter alia.

Furthermore, local governments particularly have an important role to play in environmental regulation. Due to China’s decentralised governance structure, responsibility for environmental protection is passed down to the local level. In order to fulfill this responsibility, for instance,  local governments have been “increasingly using special-purpose bond revenue to boost their local economies and support environmental protection.” Jiangxi became the first province in China to issue “labelled green local government special bonds” in 2019. Historically, local officials’ performance was assessed based on their contribution to economic growth, but due to the central government’s as well as the general public’s increasing pressure to curb environmental degradation and especially with the implementation of the APPCAP since 2013, the local officials’ performance assessment is gradually also factoring in environmental protection work. As such, local government’s environmental regulation helps induce “corporate environmental investment.” While hosting major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2017 G20 Summit, local governments reportedly took “comprehensive environmental governing measures” such as controlling traffic, supervising enterprises shutdown etc. to achieve “Political Blue Sky.”

Nevertheless, China is encountering some challenges to tackling environmental problems. Moreover, China’s own governance style seem to pose a challenge to handling these problems. The “fundamental problem,” seems to be China’s “economic development model” i.e., the “decentralization between central and local governments.” Under such a model, prioritising economic development leads to some local officials sacrificing environmental protection. Lack of “authority” and “coordination in China’s bureaucracy” have been cited as some of the CCP’s drawbacks in addressing environmental issues. Informal social relations also is arguably used by entrepreneurs to “avoid compliance of environmental regulations.” Corruption, China’s political system, continued focus on economic development; tensions between the center and the periphery in enforcing environmental standards, local protectionism, skewed legal systems, misallocation of environmental protection funds, spatial spillover effect etc. are also  some of the causes.

Hence, despite China’s efforts in addressing environmental issues, major drawbacks remain. In a paper listing “Top 5 Environmental Issues in China in 2024,” air pollution topped the list, followed by water pollution, food and water shortages, plastic pollution and loss of biodiversity. These are serious issues that could undermine the political legitimacy of the CCP. Hence it dawns on the party to make changes to China’s governance structure and political processes that posed as bottlenecks to effective management of these environmental problems. With the role of local governments assuming more significance while dealing with these problems, their performance assessment should increasingly emphasise their environmental conservation record, not mere temporary control during politically sensitive periods, in order to put more teeth into their efforts.

As China increasingly comes under both domestic and international scrutiny with regards to its environmental issues, there is no doubt that environmental conservation is high on the CCP’s agenda. However, with its economy flailing, how it seeks to balance both should be an interesting space to watch. Moreover, the fact that environmental problems are constraining its economic growth further necessitates the CCP to take this issue seriously and is thus likely to motivate the party to intensify its efforts in addressing this issue that hinges on regime stability.

Moreover, it’s a matter of international image for China as it strives to portray itself as a responsible power. Clamping down on air pollution has become an important parameter of how China is perceived in the international community. Improving its air quality would not only help China gain domestic but also international legitimacy. Hence, the politics of air pollution control in China has both domestic and international connotations. Due also to this international connotation, it becomes even more imperative for China to keep air pollution under control.




Chandam Thareima is PhD scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. My area of interests is in the domain of China's foreign policy, and specifically its diplomacy at the UN in studying the nature of China's power.

Subscribe now to our newsletter !

Get a daily dose of local and national news from China, top trends in Chinese social media and what it means for India and the region at large.

Please enter your name.
Looks good.
Please enter a valid email address.
Looks good.
Please accept the terms to continue.