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Decline in bulk deposition of air pollutants in China lags behind reductions in emissions


Swift changes in both industrialization and pollution control in China over the past 15 years have created a complex and evolving relationship between emission sources and the depositional sinks of air pollutants. Here, by combining an emissions inventory, an air quality model and a statistical model to estimate bulk deposition (wet plus a part of dry), we present the changes and driving factors of source–sink relationships of typical pollutants throughout China between 2005 and 2020. We find that the deposition of sulfate and nitrate has declined more slowly than the emissions of their precursors, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which we attribute, in part, to increased precipitation. In four developed regions of China, enhanced air pollution transport also plays an important role in the slower decline of deposition compared with that of emissions, as has a changing aerosol chemistry in the case of sulfur compounds. Our analysis shows that reducing deposition is not as simple as merely reducing its precursor emissions and suggests that the design of future policies to reduce associated risks may need to vary by region and species, accounting for their evolving interactions over time.

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Fig. 1: The interannual variations of emissions (left axis) and deposition (right axis) for China.
Fig. 2: The spatial patterns of average D/E ratios of sulfur, OXN and RDN over China.
Fig. 3: The interannual variations of the average D/E ratios of sulfur, OXN and RDN by region.
Fig. 4: The RDs of SNA/E between Base and No-Species-Chg or No-Region-Diff scenarios.

Data availability

Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The code used to develop the GAM model for deposition estimation is available at


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This work was sponsored by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFC0210106 to Y.Z., W.X., X.L. and Y.P.) and the Natural Science Foundation of China (41922052 to Y.Z. and 42177080 to Y.Z., M.M. and K.Z.).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Y.Z. designed the research. Y.Z., M.X. and Z.D. performed the research. Q.Z. and B.Z. processed the emissions data. W.X., Z.W., X.L. and Y.P. provided observational deposition data. M.M., K.Z., J.X., C.P.N., Y.L. and L.Z. interpreted the data. Y.Z., M.X. and C.P.N. wrote the paper with input from all the co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yu Zhao.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information

Nature Geoscience thanks Stefan Reis and Thorjorn Larssen for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editors: Simon Harold and Xujia Jiang, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 The spatial patterns of average annual deposition of SO42−, NO3, and NH4+ over China.

The left, central and right column indicate the average for 2005-2009 (2008-2009 for NH4+), 2010–2014, and 2015–2020, respectively. The horizontal resolution is 0.25o(lat)×0.25o(lon).

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 The annual average bulk deposition of SO42−, NO3 and NH4+ and the annual average emissions of anthropogenic SO2, NOX and NH3 during 2005–2020 (2008-2020 for RDN) by region, and their fractions to the national total

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–16 and Tables 1–9.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Interannual change in emission and deposition for China.

Source Data Fig. 2

Gridded data of D/E for different species and periods.

Source Data Fig. 3

Interannual change in D/E for different species and regions.

Source Data Fig. 4

Relative differences of SNA/E between scenarios for different species and region simulated with Air Quality RSM.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

Gridded data of bulk deposition for different species and periods.

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Zhao, Y., Xi, M., Zhang, Q. et al. Decline in bulk deposition of air pollutants in China lags behind reductions in emissions. Nat. Geosci. 15, 190–195 (2022).

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