Pollution in China

Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have always been China’s most air polluted regions but Hebei is the most severely affected region. Data from 2013, which analysed 74 cities clearly shows that Hebei province accounted for 7 out of the top 10 cities with the highest PM2.5 air pollution levels. Tianjin and Beijing were close runners up with 11th and 13th place. At the end of February of this year, the three regions yet again experienced two weeks of severe smog.

During the extreme smog, the regions held a forum in Beijing to develop greater cooperation. The meeting gave precedence to the topic of uniting together in order to defend against and control pollution. In September last year the three regions, along with periphery areas, began cooperation efforts as part of their pollution action plan. However, continuing smog suggests the results of cooperation are clearly limited.

When analysing the reasons for this, it is not hard to see that the present measures stop at talking about the problem, reporting the problem and issuing warnings. The sources of pollution have not been taken into account, nor has the role of individual regions. The lack of a compensation mechanism is exactly why we are not seeing effective results.

Within the three regions, pollution is most severe in Hebei province. The reasons include construction at the expense of the environment, coal pollution arising from the steel, iron and cement industries and the large numbers of small boilers. Without a doubt these points should be the focus in alleviating pollution. The governing process of each of the three regions needs to concentrate on quickly reducing pollution in Hebei. If they fail to do so, promises of improvements in air pollution will fall short.

Levels of air pollution vary between regions, but now each city only has its own approach in the war against pollution alone. Resolving the issue of air pollution will not be easy, but the first step must be a united effort from all regions and a clear understanding of the role of individual regions. In the past, resource supply and pollution efforts have been prioritised in the big cities.

For instance, Beijing’s clean air action plan put forward a proposal for more "power from gas." Coal plants were switched to gas, and so Beijing’s natural gas supply will be prioritized. This was despite Beijing’s coal pants having already adopted the most advanced technology. Compared to Hebei’s boiler pollution and small industry coal emissions, Beijing’s pollution emissions were much lower. If Hebei was prioritised for natural gas supplies, we would see double the results in pollution reduction. By only adopting measures which benefit the locality, the efforts of every region will be impeded and may well even do more damage to the country as a whole. As long as there remains no improvement in Hebei, Beijing will continue to suffer from severe pollution.

In the united front against air pollution, clearly identifying the roles of each individual region must be followed by the establishment of a regional compensation mechanism. In order to reach the air pollution target for the three regions of Tianjin, Beijing and Hebei, Hebei must clamp down on many high pollution industries, which in return, will impede local GDP growth and employment levels.

At the same time, it would cost much more to reduce PM2.5 emissions in Beijing compared to Hebei. Thus a compensation mechanism must be established with a focus on supporting Hebei. If Beijing’s government and enterprises were to fund efforts in Hebei to reduce emissions, this would have a much more significant effect then concentrating on Beijing itself. Comparatively, it would also be more cost effective to concentrate on efforts in Hebei.

China’s population, cities and economies are relatively centralised. Tianjin, Beijing and Hebei are only three of many problem areas. The populations of these three regions are very high, industry is heavy and the pollution capacity is proportionately less. In managing air pollution, the big three must clearly identify individual roles and seek a “strategy of mutual benefit” as opposed to concentrating on their local interests alone. They must avoid taking one step forward to their local region and three steps back for the country as a whole. Only a united front will guarantee results and realise collaborative development among the big three.

This article was originally published on Caijing, 6 March 2014. Translated by Holly Tagima.