Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Substantial emission reductions from Chinese power plants after the introduction of ultra-low emissions standards


In 2014, China introduced an ultra-low emissions (ULE) standards policy for renovating coal-fired power-generating units to limit SO2, NOx and particulate matter (PM) emissions to 35, 50 and 10 mg m−3, respectively. The ULE standard policy had ambitious levels (surpassing those of all other countries) and implementation timeline. We estimate emission reductions associated with the ULE policy by constructing a nationwide, unit-level, hourly-frequency emissions dataset using data from a continuous emissions monitoring systems network covering 96–98% of Chinese thermal power capacity during 2014–2017. We find that between 2014 and 2017 China’s annual power emissions of SO2, NOx and PM dropped by 65%, 60% and 72%, respectively. Our estimated emissions using actual monitoring data are 18–92% below other recent estimates. We detail the technologies used to meet the ULE standards and the determinants of compliance, underscoring the importance of ex post evaluation and providing insights for other countries wishing to reduce their power emissions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Chinese power plant stacks with CEMS in 2017.
Fig. 2: Daily distributions of stack concentrations at Chinese power plant stacks 2014–2017.
Fig. 3: Monthly emission factors and total emissions for Chinese power-generating units 2014–2017.
Fig. 4: Absolute emission reductions for 2014–2020.

Data availability

The CEAP database that supports the findings of this study is available at Supplementary Data 2 presents a summary of the CEAP dataset. The data regarding the compilation of the CEAP dataset include CEMS data collected from the platforms listed in Supplementary Data 9, and the unit-specific information provided in Supplementary Data 10. The data regarding the estimation of emission factors and absolute emissions include the stack concentrations presented in Fig. 1, Supplementary Figs. 13 and Supplementary Data 3, the flue gas rates provided in Supplementary Data 7 and 8 and the unit information provided in Supplementary Data 10 and 11. The data regarding the analysis of the determinants of early ULE compliance (region, fuel and capacity) are presented in Supplementary Figs. 49.

Code availability

All computer codes generated during this study are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.


  1. State of Global Air 2019 Special Report (Health Effects Institute, 2018).

  2. World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action (World Bank, 2016).

  3. Zhang, Q., He, K. & Huo, H. Cleaning China’s air. Nature 484, 161–162 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Zhao, Y., Zhang, J. & Nielsen, C. P. The effects of recent control policies on trends in emissions of anthropogenic atmospheric pollutants and CO2 in China. Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 12, 24985–25036 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Zheng, B. et al. Trends in China’s anthropogenic emissions since 2010 as the consequence of clean air actions. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 18, 14095–14111 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Klimont, Z. et al. Global anthropogenic emissions of particulate matter including black carbon. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 8681–8723 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Lu, Z., Zhang, Q. & Streets, D. G. Sulfur dioxide and primary carbonaceous aerosol emissions in China and India, 1996-2010. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 9839–9864 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Li, M. et al. MIX: a mosaic Asian anthropogenic emission inventory under the international collaboration framework of the MICS-Asia and HTAP. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 34813–34869 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China China Environmental Statistical Yearbooks 2010–2015 (China Environmental, 2010–2015).

  10. Xia, Y., Zhao, Y. & Nielsen, C. P. Benefits of China’s efforts in gaseous pollutant control indicated by the bottom-up emissions and satellite observations 2000–2014. Atmos. Environ. 136, 43–53 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Zhao, B. et al. NOx emissions in China: historical trends and future perspectives. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 9869–9897 (2013).

  12. Huang, R. et al. High secondary aerosol contribution to particulate pollution during haze events in China. Nature 514, 218–222 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China Emission Standard of Air Pollutants for Thermal Power Plants GB13223-2011 (China Environmental, 2011) (in Chinese).

  14. National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China & National Energy Administration Upgrade and Retrofit Plan for Coal-Fired Power Plants Aiming at Energy Savings and Emissions Reduction for 2014–2020 (National Development and Reform Commission, 2014) (in Chinese).

  15. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China Guideline on Available Technologies of Pollution Prevention and Control for Thermal Power Plant (China Environmental Science, 2017).

  16. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, National Development and Reform Commission & National Energy Administration Work Plan of Full Implementing Ultra-Low Emission Policy and Energy Saving Transformation for Coal-Fired Power Plants (Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, 2015) (in Chinese).

  17. National Development and Reform Commission & National Energy Administration Revolutionary Strategy for Energy Production and Consumption (2016–2030) (National Development and Reform Commission, 2016) (in Chinese).

  18. Gao, J. et al. Improving air pollution control policy in China—a perspective based on cost–benefit analysis. Sci. Total Environ. 543, 307–314 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. China’s Energy Administration Action Plan for Clean and Efficient Use of Coal (2015–2020) (China’s Energy Administration, 2015) (in Chinese).

  20. Yang, H. et al. Cost estimate of the multi-pollutant abatement in coal-fired power sector in China. Energy 161, 523–535 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Wang, C., Olsson, G. & Liu, Y. Coal-fired power industry water-energy-emission nexus: a multi-objective optimization. J. Clean. Prod. 203, 367–375 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ni, Z. et al. Potential air quality improvements from ultralow emissions at coal-fired power plants in China. Aerosol Air Qual. Res. 18, 1944–1951 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lin, C. et al. A global perspective on sulfur oxide controls in coal-fired power plants and cardiovascular disease. Sci. Rep. 8, 2611 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Li, M. & Patiño-Echeverri, D. Estimating benefits and costs of policies proposed in the 13th FYP to improve energy efficiency and reduce air emissions of China’s electric power sector. Energy Policy 111, 222–234 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Tong, D. et al. Targeted emission reductions from global super-polluting power plant units. Nat. Sustain. 1, 59–68 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Liu, F. et al. High-resolution inventory of technologies, activities, and emissions of coal-fired power plants in China from 1990 to 2010. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 15, 13299–13317 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Chen, L. et al. Unit-based emission inventory and uncertainty assessment of coal-fired power plants. Atmos. Environ. 99, 527–535 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Zhao, Y. et al. Primary air pollutant emissions of coal-fired power plants in China: current status and future prediction. Atmos. Environ. 42, 8442–8452 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Wang, S. et al. Growth in NOX emissions from power plants in China: bottom-up estimates and satellite observations. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 12, 4429–4447 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Tian, H. et al. Nitrogen oxides emissions from thermal power plants in China: current status and future predictions. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 11350–11357 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Karplus, V. J., Zhang, S. & Almond, D. Quantifying coal power plant responses to tighter SO2 emissions standards in China. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 7004–7009 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Environmental Protection Tax Law (National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, 2016) (in Chinese).

  33. Sui, Z. et al. Fine particulate matter emission and size distribution characteristics in an ultra-low emission power plant. Fuel 185, 863–871 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. China Electricity Council China Power Industry Annual Development Report 2015-2018 (China Market, 2015–2018).

  35. Driscoll, C. T. et al. US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits. Nat. Clim. Chang. 5, 535–540 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Bo, X. et al. Aviation’s emissions and contribution to the air quality in China. Atmos. Environ. 201, 121–131 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Yuan, X., Zhang, M., Wang, Q., Wang, Y. & Zuo, J. Evolution analysis of environmental standards: effectiveness on air pollutant emissions reduction. J. Clean. Prod. 149, 511–520 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Duflo, E., Greenstone, M., Pande, R. & Ryan, N. Truth-telling by third-party auditors and the response of polluting firms: experimental evidence from India. Q. J. Econ. 128, 1499–1545 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China Emission Standard of Air Pollutants for Thermal Power Plants GB13223-2003 (China Environmental, 2003) (in Chinese).

  40. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China Emission Standard of Air Pollutants for Thermal Power Plants GB13223-1996 (China Environmental, 1996) (in Chinese).

  41. Guide of Maintenance for Power Plant Equipment (Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, 2003) (in Chinese).

  42. Specifications for Continuous Emissions Monitoring of Flue Gas Emitted from Stationary Sources HJ/T 75-2007 (Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, 2007) (in Chinese).

  43. Zhao, Y. et al. Establishment of a database of emission factors for atmospheric pollutants from Chinese coal-fired power plants. Atmos. Environ. 44, 1515–1523 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. China Pollution Source Census Manual of the First National Pollution Source Census on Emission Factors from Industrial Pollution Sources (China Environmental Science, 2011) (in Chinese).

  45. Gilbert, A. Q. & Sovacool, B. K. Benchmarking natural gas and coal-fired electricity generation in the United States. Energy 134, 622–628 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Liu, Z. et al. Reduced carbon emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in China. Nature 524, 335–338 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. National Bureau of Statistics China Energy Statistical Yearbook (China Statistics, 2017) (in Chinese).

  48. National Development and Reform Commission & National Energy Administration Notice of Implementing Pilots for Spot Electricity Market (National Development and Reform Commission, 2017) (in Chinese).

  49. Frey, H. C. & Zheng, J. Quantification of variability and uncertainty in air pollutant emission inventories: method and case study for utility NOX emissions. J. Air Waste Manag. Assoc. 52, 1083–1095 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Streets, D. et al. An inventory of gaseous and primary aerosol emissions in Asia in the year 2000. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 108(D21), 1984–2012 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Tang, L., Wu, J., Yu, L. & Bao, Q. Carbon emissions trading scheme exploration in China: a multi-agent-based model. Energy Policy 81, 152–169 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Zhao, Y., Nielsen, C. P., Lei, Y., McElroy, M. B. & Hao, J. Quantifying the uncertainties of a bottom-up emission inventory of anthropogenic atmospheric pollutants in China. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 2295–2308 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. National Development and Reform Commission & National Energy Administration China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) for Power Sector Development (National Development and Reform Commission, 2017) (in Chinese).

Download references


This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation for Outstanding Young Scholars (71622011), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71971007, 71988101 and 11771012), the National Programme for Support of Top Notch Young Professionals and the National Research Programme for Key Issues in Air Pollution Control (DQGG-05-07).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



L.T., Z.M., X.B. and S.W. designed the research. X.B., S.L. and X.Z. processed and analysed the data of the continuous emissions monitoring systems. X.W. compiled and analysed the unit-specific information for Chinese power plants. L.T., J.Q., X.C. and X.X. conducted the experimental work. L.T., Z.M. and L.D.A. wrote the paper. All authors contributed to developing and writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhifu Mi or Xin Bo.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–5, Figs. 1–9 and refs 1–28.

Supplementary Data

Supplementary Data 1–11.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tang, L., Qu, J., Mi, Z. et al. Substantial emission reductions from Chinese power plants after the introduction of ultra-low emissions standards. Nat Energy 4, 929–938 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing