Stop fuming

Environmental issues jump up priority list


Targeting 30% less smoke by 2017

You know China’s air pollution is bad when French cosmetic ads start mentioning it in their commercials.

Starting this month Christian Dior has even been providing particulate readings on the Chinese language website for its ‘One Essential’ skin care products.

“Smog and sandstorms repeatedly attack the skin; among these, the greatest danger is PM2.5,” it warns under the Beijing section of the site.“In January 2013, Beijing’s smoggy weather accumulated for as much as 25 days.”

Three years ago, when US diplomats in Beijing and Shanghai started posting similar data on Twitter, it caused a major diplomatic rift with the government.

The fact that Dior now feels it can post them to sell face cream shows how widely the pollution problem has become known.

At least the authorities in China are trying to be more proactive in countering air pollution.

Further evidence of that came last Friday when the State Council announced 10 new measures to cut harmful emissions by 30% by 2017.

“The reduction of air pollution is both a standard-of-living issue and an important step in the upgrading of our economy,” noted a statement after the meeting.

The measures – some of which have already been implemented as part of pilot programmes  – include limiting the growth of energy-greedy industries like steel, cement, aluminum and glass. They also refuse permission for new industrial projects if they fail to meet newly-required standards.

There was also a pledge to improve fuel quality and ratchet up schemes to phases out residential coal-fired boilers.

Hundreds of thousand of apartments and office blocks across the country are still heated with coal-burning boilers, while Chinese diesel contains 23 times more sulphur than the equivalent fuel sold in the US, the New York Times said in an article in March.

“Even though trucks and buses crisscrossing China are far worse for the environment than any other vehicles, the oil companies have delayed for years an improvement in the diesel fuel those vehicles burn,” it warned.

But the newest and most unexpected measure was one that requires heavy polluters like metal smelters to release detailed environmental information to the public.

Most of these businesses are run by state-owned enterprises, which are generally as opaque as they are powerful.

Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, China’s leading independent environmental advocacy group, said that 5,000 of the country’s biggest plants account for three-fifths of its industrial pollution, but that little is known about their emissions.

Ma also told TIME that, after a successful campaign to get multinationals to clean up their act, he is now turning his attention to the polluting activities of the SOEs.

“It’s a much more delicate issue,” he told the magazine, referring to the political sensitivities of taking on state behemoths. “We’re not sure yet how it will all work out.”

Ma’s method with foreign firms was to put data about their emissions online. Now he plans to compile a similar database on the SOEs in the hope that it will push them into doing the bare minimums, such as retrofitting coal-fired power plants to cut the worst emissions or stopping some of the overproduction of steel.

Ma’s campaign is well timed. Public frustration at dirty air, toxic food, polluted rivers and lax environmental oversight is much more voluble. Companies are also more aware that they could come in for criticism. In the past they found it easier and cheaper to pay fines for polluting than to clean up their act, Ma said.

In another sign of positive action, a pilot carbon trading market got started in Shenzhen this week allowing companies to pay fees for emitting carbon dioxide (those on the sellside forsake their right to emit the quantity sold).

In the first contract, Shenzhen Energy Group sold an emission permit for 10,000 tonnes to the Guangdong arm of CNPC for Rmb28 ($4.56) per tonne.

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