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Beijing's air quality actually improved last year, authorities say

But particulate matter levels are still dangerously high

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Despite unprecedented alerts over dangerously high smog levels last month, authorities in Beijing say the city's air quality actually improved last year over 2014. The average concentration of PM2.5, tiny particles that can be inhaled and lodge in the lungs, was 81 micrograms per cubic meter in 2015, Beijing's municipal environmental protection bureau announced this week. That marks a 6 percent decrease from 2014, and a 10 percent drop from 2013. But as the Associated Press reports, Beijing's average concentration is still significantly higher than China's national threshold of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, and seven times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Beijing issued its first-ever red alert in December, after PM2.5 levels surged to nearly 300, forcing construction to halt and many schools to close. The Chinese capital had experienced more severe smog in the past, and had faced criticism for not enacting alerts sooner under a system that went into effect two years ago. The city issued its second red alert later that month.

"A duty to humanity."

Coal-powered industry, car emissions, and construction have all contributed to Beijing's smog problems, and the municipal government has taken steps to mitigate them. Officials have begun replacing coal with natural gas in heating systems, closing polluting factories, and prohibiting older cars from the city's roads. But experts say it's hard to determine whether the improved air quality reported this week is a direct result of reduced emissions. Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, tells the Financial Times that weather patterns may have also led to the PM2.5 decline, adding that the city's "air quality is affected more by that of nearby regions than before."

Air pollution has become a major public health concern across China, and growing public discontent has spurred the government to take action. The country has implemented new targets to rein in pollution, set up a rigorous monitoring system, and will implement a cap-and-trade system to charge companies for greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. In November, Premier Li Kiqiang described China's fight against pollution as a "duty to humanity," though the challenge may be more daunting than previously believed. Recent government figures show that the country has been burning 17 percent more coal per year than previously reported.