China is expanding its air quality improvement effort to address volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are responsible for the formation of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, each of which causes health problems.
China already shuttered thousands of steel, chemical, and power plants in the northern part of the country. According to an annual report on the country’s environmental status issued in May by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), average concentrations of airborne particulates dropped around 20% and sulfur dioxide plunged 44% from 2015 to 2018 in 338 Chinese cities. In Beijing, those reductions translated into a decrease from 59 heavy pollution days in 2013 to 15 in 2018.
Ground-level ozone, however, remains a significant problem. It increased roughly 13% across the 338 cities from 2015 to 2018.
Thus comes the new focus on VOCs, which are released from burning fuel such as gasoline, wood, coal, or natural gas. VOCs also come from many consumer products and industrial production processes, including many that use chemical solvents. Consequently, addressing VOC emissions will require “more sophisticated emission management,” says Wan Wei, an air quality expert in the China office of Clean Air Asia, an advocacy group headquartered in Manila, the Philippines.
China has already adopted a very high standard on gas quality used by automobiles. Strict car ownership control in major Chinese cities also helps limit emissions.
The country is now moving to address nonautomobile sources of VOCs. In July, the MEE began to implement new industrial standards for fugitive VOC emissions—those that come from leaks, evaporation, or other sources that can’t be routed through a stack, chimney, or vent. These new industrial requirements focus on limiting emissions through approaches such as using airproof containers to store and transport VOC-containing liquids and materials. Companies must also pipe gaseous exhaust through a filtering system.
The MEE also released on July 3 a strategic outline to implement extensive VOC emission control measures in key industries, including chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
The outline admits that China lacks expertise to address VOC emissions, particularly surveillance and management of fugitive emissions. The MEE wants industry and environmental agencies to switch to materials with lower VOC content, better identify VOC emission sources, and increase surveillance.
According to Wan, VOC emissions are more challenging to monitor and manage than other major air pollutants, but the technology is available—the difficulty lies in using the technology properly. Done correctly, better emission management should not increase industry costs, she adds.