China Ink

Change in the air?

Last week, a thick smog blanketed a large part of northeastern China once again


Has China done enough to reduce air pollution?

Obviously not, said most of the Chinese media. The Southern Metropolis Daily warned that air pollution has become a “key source of social discontent”, although Wang Jinnan, vice president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, told the China Daily that up to $277 billion – the size of Hong Kong’s economy – would be spent fighting it over the next five years. State broadcaster CCTV said this should see emissions cut by 25% by 2017 in the “most comprehensive and toughest” plan yet. A “notable improvement” in air quality was promised.

China’s efforts to decarbonise its energy system haven’t gone unnoticed, with Chris Nielsen and Mun S Ho, scholars at Harvard’s China Project, writing in the New York Times that existing investments to reduce air pollution and develop green energy “have dwarfed those of any other nation”.

US Ambassador Gary Locke agreed, telling the Washington Post that unlike areas considered problematic by America – such as human rights and respect for the rule of law – the response by the Chinese government on the environment “has been unprecedented”.

A bigger price to pay?

Closed roads and airports in Harbin pointed to a broader consequence: chronic air pollution is hindering economic activity. The 21CN Business Herald reported that fighting air pollution will be made a key theme of the upcoming Central Economic Work Conference, the annual year-end summit for top economic planners, where China’s GDP growth target is likely to be lowered to 7% for 2014, versus 7.5% this year. An op-ed in National Business Daily suggested that environmental concerns could help Premier Li Keqiang too, who is keen to shut down surplus industrial capacity in areas such as steelmaking.

China’s size makes fighting pollution tricky, The Economist admitted, suggesting that executive orders from Beijing to reduce emission tend to get negotiated away in local deals between officials and state firms. Thus while Beijingers put on their pollution masks, millions of people in adjacent cities “are more worried about jobs than smog,” noted the Financial Times, after a visit to nearby Chengde (population 3 million). The city in Hebei houses a hugely polluting steel mill, but residents say the local government does little about it because the city is economically dependent on the plant. “If this steel mill didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have anywhere to go eat. Everything revolves around this steel factory – our children work here,” warned one employee.

Any short-term remedies?

Weather modification work has been increasing. That means firing rockets into the heavens to induce rain or blue skies (a favoured ploy during the 2008 Olympics). Likewise, Wuhan’s Artificial Weather Modification Office has its staff on full standby. “When the weather conditions are ripe, we won’t miss a single piece of cloud. We will ask for rain from the sky and wash our air,” an official told a local newspaper.

Foreign solutions are on offer too. Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has developed an electromagnetic system called Smog that uses copper coils buried underground to attract airborne particles, making it an easier task to clean pollution from the air. The Guardian says Roosengaarde has forged an agreement with Beijing’s mayor to test the system in a public park and the project should be ready for launch next year.

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