Pollution in China: an end to the environmental crisis?

Despite making some progress, the war on pollution still needs to be won


Clearing the heavens, finally?

Who wants to move to Linfen? Not many people, it seemed, when we first mentioned the city in the coal heartlands of Shanxi ten years ago.

Not that you could blame them: Linfen was regularly described as the most polluted place in China. In fact, such was the environmental mess that it was having a problem recruiting new mayors. Applicants knew they would be in the spotlight for solving the pollution crisis and nobody wanted the job.

A decade on and Linfen has shut down the dirtiest of its coalmines and heavy industries. But the air quality there last year was still some of the worst of 169 cities monitored across the country. Job security for local officials was still perilous too: state news agency Xinhua reported that nearly 900 civil servants were being “held accountable” for cleaning up the mess.

Linfen isn’t alone in wrestling with an environmental emergency. Plenty of other places face the same challenges, including Xi’an, the capital of neighbouring Shaanxi, another major coal-producing province. Its attempts to clear the skies have been creative, including water-spraying trucks and gigantic air purifiers. But residents still have to suffer some of China’s worst pollution, with reports that they were breathing in smog particles harder than steel last year.

The bigger picture is that national problems demand national solutions – something that China’s central government has recognised. In the last five years, it has declared war on the worst of the pollution. So in retrospect, WiC looks back at what has changed in how China is responding to the environmental crisis. We also ask whether the situation is improving. Are the bad old days of lung-busting smog really a thing of the past and is China doing better in its bid for a greener future?

Where has the pollution been worst?

Pollution in China takes on many forms. Contaminated soil has been one of the flashpoints, with warnings that toxic land is poisoning the rice supply. Such was the anxiety at governmental level six years ago that a major soil survey was briefly declared a state secret. Later, the environment ministry acknowledged that as much as a fifth of China’s farmland could be unsafe for cultivation, describing the situation as “grim”.

Another area of great concern is water – not just that China is running low on the supply of an already-limited resource but also that much of what is left has been tainted by run-off from pesticides and discharge from heavy industries.

Decontaminating rivers, lakes, and waterways is a huge task for policymakers, especially as public awareness of the extent of the problem grows. Frustration is also increasing: one of the proposals making headlines a few years ago was that officials should be held to account by making them swim in water they have promised to clean up.

However, the most visible villain in China’s pollution crisis is the smog that envelops many of the nation’s cities. Hundreds of large towns and cities suffer from air quality that is many times worse than levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization, posing an almost daily reminder of the risks that hundreds of millions of Chinese are taking with their health.

Sulphur dioxide (most of it from coal-fired power) is one of the leading contributors but one of the main focal points for discontent has been PM2.5 particles or the charred dust created by emissions from power plants and cars, the burning of fuel in homes, and through natural dust storms.

These particles are tiny at about 3% of the width of a human hair but they pose a major danger to health by lodging in the lungs and even getting into the blood and the brain. That’s made clearing the air the most pressing priority for China’s environmental bosses.

The masked generation: smog in the cities

The masked generation: smog in the cities

The battle begins: declaring ‘war on pollution’

The fact that Beijing, the centre of political power, has been one of the worst affected cities for air pollution was an embarrassment to the government, especially in the wake of regular reports on the dreadful air quality from a monitoring station at the American embassy in the capital.

Simply pretending that the smog wasn’t a problem was no longer an option, with the worst of the pollution blanketing the capital, and other cities, for weeks at a time.

China’s burgeoning community of netizens kept up the debate on the environmental crisis and the dirty air became a major social and political issue, fuelled by the release of a much-discussed documentary called Under the Dome  in 2015.

There was also the growing realisation among the public that clearer skies were possible when the situation demanded it, including the summer of 2008 for the Beijing Olympics and again six years later when the capital played host to an APEC forum.

In this second instance, factories were closed for the duration of the summit, driving restrictions were doubled and cremations were even curtailed. The locals looked on cynically, coining the term ‘APEC Blue’ in tribute to the clearer skies. But in fact, the central government had already reached a tipping point in policy terms, following an ‘airpocalypse’ in the capital in 2013 when smog scores peaked at 35 times the recommended safety limits.

Recognising that it was becoming a touchstone issue, China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, declared war on pollution, with promises to clear the worst of the smog by eliminating outdated energy producers and industrial plants.

Soon afterwards, in what seemed like a watershed moment for the long-standing practice of sacrificing the environment for the sake of economic growth, the central government said that it was shifting some of the performance measurements for local officials. They would now be scored not simply on meeting GDP targets, it was announced, but also on the ‘quality’ of the growth. Explicitly, resource-intensive and high-polluting industries were to be discouraged, even if there was a subsequent hit to the economy.

In addition, there was a major overhaul of the environment ministry, which was given new rights of inspection and the mandate to order the closure of factories, heavy industries and power plants that failed to meet standards. Policymakers argued that these were unprecedented powers and that even the largest state-owned enterprises would be punished if they breached the new rules.

At last, China was taking serious steps to resolve the environmental crisis. “We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty,” Li, the premier, promised.

Is the battle being won?

Alongside Li’s commitments to a greener future, the government released a national air quality action plan asking urban areas to reduce concentrations of fine particulate matter pollution by at least 10%.

The target was higher in some cities – the area around Beijing was tasked with reducing air pollution by 25%, for instance, with promises of $120 billion in state spending to help it reach its goals.

Construction of new coal-fired power plants in the country’s most polluted regions was also prohibited and existing plants were ordered to reduce their emissions, or risk being replaced in the power grid by natural gas. Many of the biggest cities announced plans to reduce vehicle emissions by restricting the number of cars on the road too. In other places, coal boilers were banned for the heating of homes and offices. Often that was before replacement gas heating had been installed, leaving hundreds of thousands of people shivering through the winter cold.

Environment bosses have argued that punishments for polluters are now much stiffer and that enforcement rates are improving as more people are prosecuted for pollution-related offences. Inspectors still have to be eagle-eyed, however: last year civil servants from Shandong were caught dumping new chemicals into a river to disguise its polluted water; their counterparts in Hebei were exposed for hiding another stretch of dirty waterway under a massive tarpaulin; and a refinery from Fujian was punished for misreporting a chemical spill into nearby sea.

Of course, the real test of the anti-pollution measures is whether they have led to cleaner soil, water and air. Overall there have been improvements, but not universally across China. Soil remediation plans have been activated in and around the wealthier cities, for instance, but less work is being done in older industrial towns or rural regions, where land prices are lower. A study from Greenpeace this year also pointed out that efforts to close thousands of decrepit industrial plants were actually leaving even more contaminated land in their wake, and that the sheer number of pollutants in the soil was making it harder to find solutions as well.

One plot of land in the city of Wuhan was discovered to have 14 different contaminants, the report said.

In water quality the environment ministry says it is having some success, aided by a “river chief” system that tasks officials with keeping each of the rivers and lakes in their region free of visible pollutants. Three-quarters of these monitored waterways have reached national quality standards, it is claimed, although green campaigners say that the standards have been set too low. And while improvements were reported last year in major watercourses like the Yellow, Yangtze and Pearl rivers, waterways in northeastern China such as the Liao and Songhua were found to be even more polluted than in 2017.

The environment ministry says it is also making gains in the struggle against smog, with PM2.5 pollution falling by about 9% nationally last year compared to the year before. Mostly that has been measured in a larger number of “good air quality” days in the first five months of this year, with 120 cities meeting national air quality standards over the same period.

However, the latest data also showed an uptick in smog in Beijing and 27 surrounding cities between last October and this March, when the government’s winter air pollution action plan was supposed to be in force. Only four out of the 28 cities met their smog reduction targets and the number of heavily polluted days increased by more than a third.

Most of the average readings are still many times worse than the World Health Organization’s recommendations on safe levels and the trend is hard to track, with periods of steady gain followed by sudden declines.

In part that depends on when the pollution is being measured: the smog is at its worst in winter when cold weather traps the dust and fumes, and when there’s a surge in coal-fired power to heat homes and offices.

Another factor is the intensity of the anti-pollution drive. Measures were implemented more rigorously in the four years after 2013 but the authorities have shown signs of relaxing restrictions on smokestack industries in periods when the economy is slowing. After two decades of near double-digit expansion, growth slowed to 6.2% in the second quarter – the lowest rate since the early 1990s – and green groups will watch closely this winter, with the economy set to slow further because of the impact of the trade war with the United States.

In a sign that its stance may be softening, the environment ministry has already vowed to avoid a “one size fits all” approach to cutting industrial production in the winter months. Provincial governments have also been told that curbs are only required when air quality falls below a certain level, and not as part of a blanket ban.

Not just the air – rivers need revitalising too

Not just the air – rivers need revitalising too

Blue-sky thinking: what are China’s chances of a greener future?

Policymakers say they won’t relent, despite the signals that the clampdown on pollution has lost some of its bite. Of course, the battle is only just beginning, but new research also reveals how the war will need to be waged on many fronts. In a study earlier this year, scientists acknowledged that there had been successes in bringing down PM2.5 pollution by as much as 40% in some cities. But they also reported a nasty side effect: a sharp rise in ground-level ozone gas that had previously been absorbed into the urban haze. These higher concentrations of ozone are harmful to eyes and lungs, and deplete crop yields, the authors warned.

In another study that came out this year researchers warned that global warming is also making it harder to get to grips with the polluted haze because the smog is feeding on frequent heat waves and longer periods of stagnant air.

That makes it even more important that the Chinese take coordinated action and that green policies are germinated across neighbouring cities, because pollution is no respecter of municipal boundaries. Sadly, that isn’t always evident, even in places like the Greater Bay Area, one of the country’s most advanced economies.

Back at the national level, another major priority is a reduced role from coal-fired power. On the plus side, the share of coal in the total energy mix fell to 59% last year from 68.5% in 2012. But overall consumption of coal is still rising, up 3% from a year earlier to 3.82 billion tonnes last year, official data showed.

The goal is for gas, nuclear, and renewable power to take on a larger share of energy generation but a fivefold increase in approvals for new coal mines in the first half of 2019 shows that coal is still king in the quest for shorter-term growth.

A key step towards cutting back is winning the argument that it isn’t a cost-effective choice and activists have argued that the Chinese could save as much as $389 billion by closing coal plants in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and replacing them with renewable energy. But the challenge is that energy policymakers still need to be convinced.

The same situation applies in the debate on the public health impact of the smog. While the dirty air is undeniable, campaigners are still in the process of making the consequences crystal clear. Slowly the science is stacking up on their side. Air pollution is costing China at least Rmb267 billion in early deaths and lost food production, a team from the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggested last year, with at least a million people a year succumbing to the effects of the smog. Similar studies have claimed that pollution is shortening life expectancies by 25 months, with the even more startling suggestion that concentrations of sulphur in the worst of Beijing’s winter air can reach proportions comparable to volcanic eruptions.

Claims like that should keep the government more than conscious of its pollution crisis and deadly serious in delivering on its goals. Two years ago China put the world on notice that it would no longer serve as a dumping ground for other countries’ recyclable trash, for instance, barring imports of various types of waste. Disposal sites in Europe and North America were soon piling up with unwanted rubbish. The intention is to block imports of all recyclable materials by the end of next year.

The Chinese have also adopted a tougher regime on rubbish recycling at home, implementing sweeping new policies for households in places like Beijing and Shanghai. International media covered the story with headlines on how residents had reacted to the ‘eco-dictatorship’ but this kind of approach is starting to put the Chinese ahead of most of their global peers.

Once regarded as greenhouse gas bogeymen, they want to reinvent themselves as champions of clean energy, by adopting pioneering technologies in sectors such as renewable energy and taking the lead in brand new industries like electric cars. Companies have been encouraged to invest billions of dollars in new know-how, with plans that they will export their expertise overseas. In many cases they are already in a leadership position: sales of electric vehicles increased by two-thirds in China last year, making it by far the largest market, and the Chinese added more solar power capacity last year than the US, Japan, and Germany combined. In fact, China already has more solar capacity than any other country, and within five years it will have more than double the solar power of its nearest rival, the US.

In this context China’s blue-sky thinking could bring even bigger benefits, with the war on pollution paying off in vast new profits. Despite being laggards in protecting the environment in the past, there is a good chance that the Chinese will emerge as leaders, contributing more than most to the battle to save the planet.

Solar power – a chance for China to lead

Solar power – a chance for China to lead

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