HONG KONG — After rising steeply for many years, emissions of three important pollutants began to decline last year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announced Thursday as part of an annual report.
Total levels of pollution in China’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters still rose, however, as more pollutants continued to flow into them, the ministry said. And the air in many Chinese cities remained severely polluted.
The ministry said that emissions of sulfur dioxide, mainly from coal-fired power plants and the primary cause of acid rain, declined 4.66 percent last year. The Chinese government has pursued a stringent program that requires power plants to cleanse most of the sulfur dioxide from their flue gases before they are released into the atmosphere. Environmentalists had expected the program to show success.
Emissions of organic pollutants into waterways, as measured by tests of chemical oxygen demand, declined by 3.14 percent last year, the ministry said. Industries reduced their discharges of solid waste into the air and water by 8.1 percent.
Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist in Beijing, said that while the calculations may be accurate, the overall levels of pollutants are still far higher than the environment can tolerate, particularly in China’s waters.
“We need to have the understanding this is just the turning point in pollution discharges, this isn’t the turning point in the environment,” he said.
The Chinese government is trying hard to convince the world that the severe air pollution in Beijing is improving and that it will not imperil the health of athletes in the Olympics there in August. Atmospheric scientists have questioned whether local governments in Beijing, Guangzhou and other big Chinese cities are placing air pollution sensors where pollution is below average.
The Environmental Ministry said the percentage of China’s coastal waters rated at the worst possible level of pollution rose to 25.4 percent last year, from 24.3 percent a year earlier. Coastal waters in good condition dropped to 62.8 percent from 67.7 percent.
The proportion of Chinese cities with fairly good air quality was practically unchanged last year, while the number of extremely polluted cities declined.
Air quality tends to improve faster than water quality in China when pollution is reduced. Fresh air typically flows in from Siberia and Central Asia, while China’s polluted air is wafted east across the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Japan, with some pollution reaching the United States.
The pollutants identified in the report as showing improvement, particularly sulfur dioxide, tended to be those emitted by relatively few factories and power plants, many of them owned or controlled by the state. That makes it easier to limit pollution.
Air quality experts calculate that up to 90 percent of deaths from air pollution are caused by tiny particles of soot. The biggest contributors in cities are trucks. The ministry provided no figures on Thursday for emissions of such particles.
China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, separately reported that factories around Lake Tai, China’s third largest body of fresh water, will now be subject to penalties five times what they had been for polluting, under rules adopted last year by Jiangsu Province and taking effect on Thursday. The lake had a severe outbreak of blue-green algae in May 2007 that was linked to pollution.