With air pollution reaching record levels, Chinese cities are taking new steps to combat the problem. This comes on the heels of a new emphasis on environmental protection by the central government. An article in People’s Daily promised that “China will be environmentally different after the Third Plenum.” We’re seeing steps towards making this promise into a reality.
Shanghai, spurred by its own pollution crisis in early December, has laid out a detailed “emergency air pollution plan.” According to China Daily, the plan involves both a warning system for Shanghai’s air pollution and a detailed plan of action for each of the four alert levels. The plan is an improved version of the original, issued in April 2013, in that it issues its pollution warnings 24 hours ahead of time, rather than after the fact.
However, the warning levels also underscore the extent of the problem: Shanghai’s lowest level, a “blue alert” will be triggered when air quality index (AQI) readings are expected to remain between 201 and 300 for 24 hours. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by contrast, has this level of pollution tagged as the second highest level on its scale, with a label of “very unhealthy.” U.S. cities such as Washington DC routinely issue alerts when the AQI reaches above 100 (an “orange alert” on the U.S. scale), while it would take double this amount for Shanghai citizens to get an air quality warning.
Beijing has also revamped its air pollution strategy as the city faces a repeat of last year’s so-called “airpocalypse.” According to Xinhua, Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun has announced an “all-out effort” to bring down air pollution levels. Under the plan, Beijing will get rid of coal-burning boilers within the city’s fifth ring road in a bid to cut coal use by 2.6 million tons. The city government also plans to ban “heavily polluting vehicles” (it’s unclear what standard will be used to define this) as well as taking aim at “300 polluting companies” (again, it’s unclear so far what actions exactly will be taken, or what companies will be targeted). Overall, Wang said, the Beijing municipal government has set aside 15 billion RMB ($2.4 billion) for the battle against air pollution in 2014.
In addition, chinadialogue reports that over 170 Chinese cities have agreed to allow real-time online monitoring of air quality figures, a project initiated by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The move is expected to create more impetus for environmental clean-up efforts — Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs told chinadialogue that the data reveals that certain factories and plants continue “to breach discharge standards” even “when the local area was experiencing a period of severe pollution.” Making the data public will contribute to political pressure on such repeat offenders. The news continues a positive trend that began in 2012, when Beijing, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and other cities began to publicly report levels of PM2.5 pollution.
Despite China’s efforts to curb pollution, some wonder if it’s too little, too late. Frustrated local officials told chinadialogue that, though they are held responsible for local pollution, the scope of the problem is beyond their control. These officials believe China’s emphasis on continued development places environmental protection agencies on a lower rung than their counterparts. Other officials point to the root cause of the problem as China’s national energy and industrial structure, which local officials are powerless to change.
Elizabeth Economy, author of the recent book The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, wrote in a blog post that China’s leaders are “working hard to turn the environmental situation around, but overwhelmingly within the parameters of their traditional approaches.” Economy is skeptical that this approach will be able to make the drastic changes needed to repair China’s environment — she places her hope instead on the growing citizen’s movement for environmental protection, including NGOs.
However, the ultimate goal of such “bottom-up” pressure is to force the government to make changes. Without cooperation from the top, NGOs won’t get anywhere. The past year has seen an increase in government action, whether it’s tweaking old policies (like emissions standards for specific industries) or experimenting with new ones (like a carbon trading program). That’s good news for China’s environmentalists, as long as they can keep the momentum going.