(EnergyAsia, February 15 2013, Friday) — Despite its reputation for having the world’s most polluted cities, China is making progress in cleaning up its environment faster than many people realise, according to a UK energy consultant.

Jonathan Lane, GlobalData’s head of consulting for power and utilities, has compared China’s current air pollution levels to some of the worst experienced during Britain’s industrial era.

London’s worst smog, or pea souper, started on December 6 1952, lasted for four days and is reckoned to have killed 12,000 in total, according to GlobalData.

Similarly to contemporary Beijing, London’s weather was partly responsible for the smog, but the problem was eventually fixed by the Clean Air Act of 1956 which enforced the use of smokeless fuels and relocated power stations outside of cities.

“Progress towards resolving the situation in the UK was relatively slow,” said Mr Lane.

“It is useful to contrast this with the challenges that lie before Beijing and other Chinese cities today and the progress they are making in improving air quality. The popular view is that Chinese politicians display the same attitude as Macmillan – burning coal and maintaining lax environmental policies in order not to damage economic growth. There are clear signs, however, that attitudes and development have changed significantly.”

Chinese cities are choked by heavy levels of pollution from rising motor vehicle ownership and growing use of coal to generate electricity. Beijing recently claimed the world record for having the most polluted and toxic air when its PM2.5 fine particles content surged to a high of 993 on January 12, way above the 25 level deemed dangerous by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Mr Lane noted that the Chinese government is actively promoting the use of natural gas to reduce air pollution in the country that will have impact in three areas.

Firstly, the conversion of coal-fired heating and electricity generating plants from coal to natural gas is nearing completion in Beijing, and will reduce air pollution significantly, as district heating plants must be located inside the city and therefore contribute to smog problems in winter.

The availability of natural gas to household consumers is also rising, with Beijing having around 4.5 million domestic gas connections, representing around 60-70% of all households.

Finally, compressed natural gas (CNG) is now available in Beijing, and the market is expected to grow rapidly. CNG has far fewer particulate emissions than either petrol or diesel, and will therefore help Beijing reduce its air pollution significantly.

“Natural gas consumption is growing rapidly across China as many cities look to reduce their pollution problems,” said Mr Lane.

According to GlobalData, there were 108 million domestic natural gas connections in China at the end of 2011, up sharply from 19 million in 2010.