China’s APEC Challenge: Clearing the Air


In two weeks, leaders from both sides of the Pacific Ocean will converge in Beijing for the 22nd annual APEC Economic Leader’s Meeting. Beijing has made no secret of the importance it places on this summit; the successful hosting of this international event will be another symbol of China’s national power and influence. But diplomatic concerns aside, China will have to scramble to make sure there isn’t an uninvited guest on the scene – blankets of thick, grey smog.

It’s been another smoggy start to the winter in Beijing. Last week, the Beijing marathon took place amidst spiking levels of pollution. According to the U.S. embassy’s air quality monitor, on the day of the marathon levels of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter pollution) peaked at 400 micrograms per cubic meter – well above the WHO-recommended maximum of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Even China’s National Meteorological Center warned against outdoor activity. Despite this, marathon organizers declined to cancel the event, earning themselves heavy criticism from foreign media outlets.

China’s government is trying to avoid another high-profile display of severe pollution during this November’s APEC summit. The leaders’ meeting, to be held from November 10-11 in Beijing, is one of China’s top diplomatic priorities for 2014. Having the marquee event take place under a haze of smog would be embarrassing for China’s leaders, particularly given their recent focus on cleaning up the environment. Thus, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli recently called ensuring good air quality for the APEC summit the “priority of priorities” for China. Making sure the smog lifts for the high-profile event involves “tremendous pressure and challenge,” Zhang added.

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Accordingly, China is taking steps to ensure Beijing’s skies are blue during the summit. Xinhua announced several weeks ago that the Beijing municipal government will institute strict driving control measures from November 3 to 12. According to the plan, individual cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternating days, based on whether their license plate numbers are odd or even. Beijing’s municipal transport commission expects the driving controls to decrease total traffic by 35 percent.

Beijing has even declared a six-day holiday in order to reduce traffic (and smog) further. “Employees of government departments, quasi-government institutions and organizations in Beijing” will be off work from November 7 to 12, South China Morning Post reported.

Beyond cutting down on traffic-related pollution, China has targeted power plants, construction work, and other polluting industries in Beijing and the neighboring Tianjin metropolis and Hebei province. In his comments, Vice Premier Zhang specifically mentioned the need to shut down “power, construction, steel making, petrochemicals and coking” enterprises in the surrounding region. According to Xinhua, Chai Fahe, the vice president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, expects these temporary shutdowns to reduce “the pollutants discharge in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei regions … by 30-40 percent.”

China instituted similar measures – traffic control and shutting down nearby factories – to ensure clear skies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Their efforts were rewarded by bright blue skies during China’s moment in the global spotlight, but the winter is always a more challenging time for smog prevention, as coal-fired heating systems kick into gear.  Reuters reports that China’s National Environmental Monitoring Center predicted “severe pollution” ahead of the APEC Summit in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei.

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