China’s fast economic development over the past 30 years has been achieved at a huge price – air pollution. Concentrations of pollutants exceed standards recommended by the World Health Organization in virtually every major urban area.
As a result, air pollution has become a huge concern to most Chinese. In a survey recently conducted by the environmental organization WildAid China, 90% of the Chinese are worried about the air they breathe every day. Earlier this year, the organization even released a video as part of its GOBlue Campaign to highlight the problem (see bottom).
The video shows that people in China have adapted to the air by growing long hair from nostrils to filter out the smog. It might be funny to watch, but the issue it depicts is absolutely no fun.
China Cuts Pollution For the 2008 Beijing Olympics
China had largely ignored the problem until right before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. To prevent its national image from being tarnished due to the poor air quality in the capital city, China started working to clean up the air for the Olympics, shutting down all nearby factories and ordering half the cars off the road. Such an effort paid off — the air was cleaner and people could even see more blue skies.
But these measures were temporary, and their positive results were also short-lived. Right after the Games, as the enforcement of regulations regarding environmental protection in the city became lax again, the air quality soon returned to its original level, and was getting worse over the years.
Just like Beijing, almost all other major cities also suffered from serious air pollution. As smog became a common scene in northern cities, with the public concern over poor air quality turning into anger, China finally woke up. To ensure its stability and sustainable development, the country has taken a series of measures to curb its air pollution over the past two to three years. Just as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang described in 2014, China is fighting pollution with an “iron fist.”
A $277 Billion Plan to Combat Air PollutionImage Source: Los Angeles Times
2013 was a defining year in China’s efforts to reduce air pollution. The Chinese government took several big steps in the year to show to the world that its battle against harmful particulate matter was for real. The most high-profile action was a $277 billion plan to combat air pollution over the five years from 2013 through 2017.
The plan specifically targets northern China, particularly Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province, where air pollution is especially serious. It says that pollutant air emissions are to be reduced by 25% by 2017 as compared to the levels recorded in those areas in 2012.
China’s state media heralded the plan as the country’s most comprehensive and toughest move to reduce air pollution.
The main target of the cleaner air initiative is PM 2.5, the tiny airborne pollutants most harmful to human health and a major cause of smog that residents in such northern cities as Beijing and Tianjin must endure on a daily basis. Although the precise causes of smog are still unclear, it is widely believed that coal burning and vehicle exhaust fumes contribute greatly to the polluted air.
According to the action plan, China will cut coal use, shut down polluters and promote cleaner production. As part of a broader air pollution campaign, China will promote industry upgrades and impose stricter control over high-polluting and energy-intensive industries.
The implementation of the plan has achieved positive results. According to a report released in late 2015 by Clean Air Asia China office, the annual mean concentrations of five pollutants including PM 2.5 have decreased in 2014 from a year before.
Closing Dirty Factories
As part of its effort to improve the environment by 2017, China promised to close polluting factories. And the country did not eat its own words despite its economic slowdown.
According to a report by China’s official Xinhua News Agency in January this year, the Beijing authorities have closed over 1,000 factories for the polluting environment over the past five years.
Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun was quoted as saying that the municipal government has additionally closed 228 marketplaces during the same period and rejected over 13,000 applications to establish new businesses. It has aimed to close 2,500 enterprises in 2016 under the city’s environment program.
In other places, especially the most polluted provinces, mass closures of high-polluting enterprises have also taken place. Last year, the magazine The Economist reported that Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, had closed down 18,000 offending factories since the beginning of 2013. In addition, many rock quarries and rubble pits had also been shut.
In 2015, China even closed factories near the new Disneyland in Shanghai, hoping for finer skies around the park, according to a report by Reuters.
Cutting Down on Coal UseImage Source: Bloomberg
Only about two months after the $277 billion action plan was unveiled in mid-2013, China announced new measures to improve air quality in key industrial regions – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei in northern China, the Yangtze River Delta in eastern China and the Pearl River Delta in southern China.
One of the major measures is to cut coal consumption in the total energy mix to below 65% by 2017, down from 66.8% in 2012. Even though there are no quantified coal reduction targets for the above three major economic regions, such a plan has drawn applause from experts in the field of environmental protection.
Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate in China, said that the plan identifies the root cause of air pollution in the country – industrial structure. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed,” he was quoted as saying in a report by The New York Times. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning – China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”
Although the plan allows local governments to set coal burning limits on their own, certain regions have shown their determination to contribute to the pollution combatting cause. Beijing and Hebei Province have promised to cut coal consumption by 13 to 40 million tons respectively by 2017.
The plan has soon led to positive results. In 2015, China’s coal consumption fell for the second year in a row. According to a report released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in February, coal use fell 3.7% last year compared to 2014 levels. The drop follows a 2.9% decrease in 2014.
Better Legislation and Increased Accountability
To make its battle against air pollution more forceful, China has strengthened its environmental laws over the past two years. In April 2014, Chinese legislators passed the first amendments to the country’s Environmental Protection Law in 25 years, promising greater powers for environmental authorities and harsher punishments for polluters.
According to the new law, which became effective on January 1, 2015, if a polluter does not make a correction as ordered by authorities, the authorities have the power to impose a fine on a daily basis. This penalty is apparently more severe than that in the previous version of the law, in which a one-time penalty was imposed on each illegal activity.
The amendments even allow authorities to detain company bosses for 15 days if they do not complete environmental impact assessments or ignore warnings to stop polluting.
Hongjun Zhan, a leading China regulatory expert who used to write China’s air pollution laws, said in a recent interview with BBC that nowadays China definitely has better legislation regarding environmental protection. “The law drafters today are doing a much better job than I did,” he said.
Zhan, who currently works with a U.S. law firm in Washington D.C., pointed out that China’s environmental laws today are more aggressive – more “detailed, accurate and comprehensive” — than before.
At the same time, more accountability is imposed on local officials for any pollution issues in the areas that they govern. The central government now evaluates these officials not only on their economic performance but also on their environmental record. In other words, air quality targets are being incorporated into officials’ performance appraisal system. In a five-year plan (2013-2017) adopted by the Beijing Municipal government to combat air pollution in the city, each of the 81 bullet points includes the name and title of the person who is responsible for making it happen.
Also, policymakers are placing less emphasis on GDP growth, which has long been an obsession of officials at all levels of government, and pushing for more actions at local levels to reduce pollution. The amended Environmental Protection Law specifies that local governments should increase investment in improving the environment and preventing pollution, and support the environmental protection industry.
China Still Facing Uphill Battle against Air PollutionImage Source: Youtube
With all these “heavy blows” struck against air pollution, air quality in China’s big cities is getting better. But the country is still facing an uphill battle in cleaning up its air, as most of the cities with less air pollutant particles still fail to meet China’s national air quality standard, and none of the cities meet the WHO standard, according to Greenpeace East Asia’s study results released in April 2016.
Also, the study found that while air quality in East China’s major cities has improved, pollution levels in the central and western provinces have actually increased. This shows that the government’s measures to curb air pollution in eastern China’s key regions work, but these policies have not been effectively implemented throughout the country.
Air quality in central and western China is likely to deteriorate further due to increased investments in coal-fired power plants in these regions, according to Greenpeace.
So today China requires even more ambitious pollution reduction targets. But it will be an even tougher battle to realize them as China is still struggling to strike a balance between protecting its environment and keeping its economic growth to bring more jobs to people.
Now See the GO Blue Campaign Highlighting the Pollution Issue:
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