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Harvard/Nanjing study: China’s war on PM2.5 pollution is causing more severe ozone pollution

In early 2013, the Chinese government declared a war on air pollution and began instituting stringent policies to regulate the emissions of PM2.5. Cities restricted the number of cars on the road, coal-fired power plants reduced emissions or were shuttered and replaced with natural gas. Over the course of five years, PM 2.5 concentrations in eastern China have fallen nearly 40%.

The number of air quality monitoring stations across the country has grown to more than 1,000, collecting unprecedented amounts of environmental data. Sifting through that data, researchers from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology (NUIST), found that while PM 2.5 pollution is falling, harmful ground-level ozone pollution is on the rise, especially in large cities.

Their study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and has been studied since it began choking cities in the US in the early 1950s. Ozone is formed through a series of chemical reactions, starting with the oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This reaction forms chemical radicals, which drives reactions among oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and VOCs to produce ozone in the presence of sunlight. Both NOx and VOCs are emitted from fossil fuel combustion, and VOCs can also be emitted from industrial sources.

The researchers from SEAS and NUIST found that particulate matter acts like a sponge for the radicals needed to generate ozone pollution, sucking them up and preventing them from producing ozone.

There was so much particulate matter in Chinese cities that it stunted the ozone production.

—Daniel Jacob, the Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering, and co-corresponding author

But the rapid reduction of PM2.5 significantly altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, leaving more radicals available to produce ozone.

We haven’t observed this happening anywhere else because no other country has moved this quickly to reduce particulate matter emissions. It took China four years to do what took 30 years in the US.

—Daniel Jacob

Despite this rapid reduction, China still has a long way to go to meet its air quality goals.

As PM2.5 levels continue to fall, ozone will continue worsening,said Ke Li, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and first author of the study.

Results from this study suggest that extra efforts are needed to reduce NOx and VOC emissions in order to stem the tide of ozone pollution.

— Professor Hong Liao at NUIST, co-corresponding author

This research was supported by NUIST through the Harvard-NUIST Joint Laboratory for Air Quality and Climate (JLAQC).


  • Ke Li, Daniel J. Jacob, Hong Liao, Lu Shen, Qiang Zhang, Kelvin H. Bates (2018) “Anthropogenic drivers of 2013–2017 trends in summer surface ozone in China” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1812168116



You have to wonder how much of this is due to more light getting to ground level.  Ozone production is a photochemical process and particulate matter absorbs and scatters light; less particulate matter means more energy reaching ground level to drive the reactions which create ozone.

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