air pollution

Cleaning up China’s sky

If you follow news on China even a little bit in the international media, you will have heard about the high levels of air pollution in pretty much all major Chinese cities. Airpocalypses even: when the level of pollution in a particular city gets so high that public life comes to a halt. Beijing experienced this on January 12, 2013 (to name the most extreme day) when the level of PM2.5 particles in the air (the main pollutant, and what is generally measured to assess the level of pollution at any given moment) reached a staggering 755. In Shanghai, the record stands close to 500, occurring on December 6, 2013. To put these numbers into perspective: the WHO recommends a level of 25 (of PM2.5) as the maximum level for clean air.


When I arrived in Beijing two weeks ago, the sky was blindingly blue. And clean: this was achieved by shutting down many of the factories surrounding Beijing and by allowing less traffic on the roads to make sure the city would look at its best for the APEC Summit, with heads of state attending from 21 Asia-Pacific countries.

A friend I met last week mentioned that with this feat Beijing showed that it isn’t so difficult to clean up the air, in contrast to the more common argument that high levels of air pollution are currently unavoidable to sustain China’s economic growth. The fact that Beijing’s sky was blue wasn’t easy: shutting down so many factories, restricting travel, closing schools and businesses has serious economic consequences and is unfortunately not a sustainable (i.e. long-term) solution. By giving up economic growth, China would face more serious problems in the shorter term (that is, assuming that the impact of air pollution is a more longer term consequence, which is in itself a debatable assumption).

So, what, then, is China doing about the air pollution?

This was the topic of a GreenInitiatives event in Shanghai I attended last week, where Greenpeace representative Calvin Quek working on this topic talked us through a lot of data and statistics on the scale of the problem, followed by some insight in policy measures in place to do something about it. That, especially, is what I was interested in learning about.

It’s easy to forget that in fact the government is working on how to combat air pollution, which sadly is only one of the many environmental problems happening in China right now. But it’s faced with a difficult task, both because of the scale of the problems but also because to really find a long term solution will require structural reforms in the economy as well. And this is difficult to do anywhere, dealing with vested interests and with an uncertain perspective of what will replace ‘old’ parts of the economy.

Hebei’s coal dependency

The Greenpeace presentation used Hebei province to show the complexity of solving this issue. Hebei is a province more or less encircling the city of Beijing. Hebei’s main industry is steel production, electricity production and related heavy industries. Coal is China’s main source of energy (coal accounted for 69% of China’s energy consumption in 2011) and all of these heavy industries require enormous capacities of coal. Industrial output, e.g. through coal burning to produce the electrity needed is the largest contributer to air pollution and levels of PM2.5. This has a direct impact on the air quality in that province: from a 2013 ranking of 74 Chinese cities on air pollution, 6 of the top 10 most air polluted cities are located in Hebei.

The air pollution coming from Hebei is in large part the source for Beijing’s pollution. And part of the air pollution action plan launched this year is to reduce coal burning in specific locations (e.g. by introducing production caps), such as Hebei. But, China’s economy is currently still reliant on coal: where will it get its energy from to be able to continue its economic growth (which is already projected to drop in the coming years) if not from coal? This requires a transition in energy use and energy sources which is a long term strategy and cannot be done overnight.

More urgently: for Hebei coal burning and related industries are its lifeline.

Shutting down this industry will require an alternative model for economic development and employment in the region. What can replace coal to continue to provide the people of Hebei with sufficient employment and income for the foreseeable future? None of this even looks at the general development of the coal market internationally, which will be impacted by any shift in China’s consumption as well: the prospects are bleak indeed also from this perspective.

Yet, even if Hebei’s production decreases – which has been happening, also because there is a big problem of overcapacity which threatens the industry’s stability – this may be a small improvement for the Beijing area, but Greenpeace’s data also showed the other consequence: coal burning is shifting to other parts in China, most notably Jiangsu province, which borders Shanghai (and see here an important source for Shanghai’s air pollution). Looking at data of which cities are seeing the strongest increase in PM2.5 levels, 4 of the top 10 cities are in Jiangsu province.

And when, for example, production caps are introduced in this region, it is likely the industry will shift again – to another part of China. This doesn’t really sound like a future proof solution, does it.

‘Humankind’s last hope’?

Nevertheless, the government has embarked on the action plan mentioned above (published Sept 12, 2013), which is foreseen to run until at least 2017, with the intention of also tying in new plans in the upcoming 13th Fifth Year Plan (2016-2020). The action plan is called ‘massive’ as it mobilizes various government agencies (such as NDRC, NEA, Ministry of Science & Technology) and requires them to collaborate on this. It proposes reducing PM2.5 levels in three large industrial regions of China by 2017 (Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei).

Some elements of that plan which should contribute to achieving this:

  • stricter limits on industrial emissions and overall industrial transformation
  • replace coal-use with natural gas and power
  • stricter fuel standards for vehicles
  • public disclosure on companies’ environmental performance
  • introducing emergency response systems
  • making local officials accountable for pollution

There is a lot to do. But, hopefully, with public pressure increasing (for example, through apps and websites making public disclosure of heavy polluters much easier) these steps will lead to a bit of relief of China’s heavily polluted air. However, for a longer term solution, it looks like much more will be needed, such as a more structural reform of China’s energy mix, a shift away from its heavy dependency on coal and a transition of its economic foundations to make this possible. Hopefully China’s government will be able to use the next Five Year Plan to push through these necessary reforms for the benefit of China’s population, and for the rest of the world – as this also impacts the global economy.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Dit is niet makkelijk te veranderen: overproductie in de staalindustrie zorgt er ook voor dat werkgelegenheid in bijvoorbeeld Hebei voor een groot deel afhankelijk is geworden van die industrie. Hoe verander je dat zonder dat dat tot veel maatschappelijke onrust en werkloosheid […]

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