Pollution in China

For residents in Beijing and many other eastern parts of China, this spring means another choking season of air pollution and a few more months of waiting for real cleanup action.

Earlier in March, at a press conference of the "two sessions", China’s annual parliamentary session, Wu Xiaoqing, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), outlined a comprehensive list of proposed measures to tackle air pollution. In Wu's policy toolbox, actions including expanding the network of PM 2.5 monitoring sites, imposing regional coal cap, tightening vehicle fuel standards, and establishing regional pollution control coordination mechanisms were all earmarked.

In fact, none of these prescriptions were entirely new. As Wu himself rightfully stressed "the key is to foster these measures and fully implement them". Unfortunately, one and a half months after Mr. Wu's pledge, we have seen few of the emission reduction measures implemented.

And after one of the worst winters, with the air quality index shooting, quite literally, off the chart, frequent haze has continued to hover over Beijing this spring. The only thing to become clearer has been public understanding of the pollution's severe health impact. At a workshop in Beijing on March 31, a study by Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimated that 1.2 million premature deaths and life loss of 25 million healthy years are attributed to air pollution in China in 2010. According to the research team, this ranks China as the single most affected country in the world by air pollution in terms of health implications.

A Peking University and Greenpeace joint research released in April too drives this point home. From early December to mid-January, the team carried out monitoring of individual PM 2.5 exposures with nine volunteers in Beijing using individual samplers. Levels of all three heavy metals tested (arsenic, lead, and cadmium) frequently went beyond the national Ambient Air Quality Standards. The most striking finding appears in arsenic, a hazardous heavy metal that mainly evaporates during coal burning. During the testing period, the average level of arsenic in PM 2.5 was almost four times the national standard.

Given these daunting health impacts, MEP's malfunctioning is fast becoming unacceptable. And causing the biggest controversy is the 18-year timeline set for Beijing and many other cities to meet national air quality standard. According to this timetable, the earliest residents in Beijing can expect safe breathing is 2030. Bearing in mind that the Chinese national standard is weaker than the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guideline (AQG), it will take even longer to bring Beijing on par with internationally recommended air quality levels.

And yet, as Zhang Lijun, a CPPCC member and former MEP Vice Minister frankly put it from the sidelines of the “two sessions”, “given political determination, it is possible to meet (the air quality) standard in 10 years”. A group of ministerial level officials including Zhang himself also made a submission during the “two sessions” calling for coal consumption caps for key populous eastern regions of the country.

Despite the fact that people’s health are at stake and growing support among certain officials, it is a shame to see the MEP has not likewise adopted such a progressive position.

With the country still placing economic development as a priority above everything and anything else, the MEP is nowhere close to the other higher ranking ministries in terms of political clout. Given its highly constrained power and fragmented authority, MEP’s disappointing performance is hardly unexpected.

Actions such as adjusting the country's energy and transportation growth trajectory and imposing regional coal caps are most relevant to emission reduction. Yet the planning and enforcement of these measures are largely beyond the MEP's hand. They are exclusively controlled by other ministries, heavily influenced by state owned enterprises (SOEs), or strongly protected by various local powers.

None of these, however, should become an excuse for neglecting China's environment. If the MEP knows some of these proposed measures are going to hit the wall, the ministry should then think hard and adopt a strategy that is different from the status quo.

As the old Chinese proverb says, “no one can command others who cannot command himself”. To stand up against environmental injustice, the ministry itself first needs to be ambitious and decisive on its mandate before bailing out and seeking external help. While it is an even weaker player now compared to less than 10 years ago, when it was known as the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), it still managed to blow an “environmental storm” across the country. At the peak of that storm, SEPA actively enforced its environmental impact assessment (EIA) authority and iconically suspended 30 projects due to non-compliance, behind most of which lay the vested interests of China’s powerful state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and local governments. A high profile Summer Palace project, which attracted significant opposition from environmental groups, was also halted by SEPA.

In all these cases, direct confrontation and substantive political capital investment were unavoidable. But through dedicated efforts, SEPA not only woke up the media and the public to China’s severe environmental abuses but also created more space and credibility for itself to better enforce the law. Past experience proves how the ministry, equipped with a smart strategy and strong leadership, can fulfill its tasks.

The ministry should, in the meantime, be systematically and institutionally strengthened. A comparison to its US counterpart drastically shows a lack of capacity in terms of law enforcement. On governing air pollution, a matter that is no less complex and challenging than any other top social or economic priorities the country is facing, policy makers should realize that without constant high level interventions, the outcome will at its best be "two steps forward, three steps back".

Betting on more resources and power from within the government apparatus has its limitations. The MEP should actively seek an alliance with like-minded progressive local governments whose environmental credibility and legitimacy are increasingly challenged by a well-informed public. 

The ministry should also realize the broad constituencies that it is accountable for. The private sector and civil society are concerned by air quality degradation and are willing to work in collaboration. A recent discussion about what can be learned from the London experience with air pollution in the past indicated that the authorities should play a more facilitative role by making pollution information transparent.

A glimmer of hope is already in sight. In February, Guangdong released its phase II Pearl River Delta Clean Air Action Plan (2013-15). The Plan is the first regional one in the nation, covering nine cities in the region. It vows to cap coal consumption at 160 million ton by 2015 and to meet national air quality standards by 2020.

On April 11, three environmental organizations, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), Friends of Nature (FON), and the SEE Foundation, submitted an open letter to the Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPB) of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei (the so called Jing-Jin-Ji region). The letter asked for the disclosure of instantaneous emission figures from key enterprises monitored by these EPBs. In addition, it asked first quarter inspection records of these key enterprises to be disclosed by the EPBs. At the time of writing, Beijing and Hebei are apparently responding the request.

For certain these are only the beginning of a prolonged uphill battle. The MEP is still far from delivering its promises. Facing an “airpocalypse”, the ministry has no other choice but to think hard on what they can do differently this time and learn from its numerous catastrophic failures of past. The clock is ticking and every time the air quality level goes "beyond index" and into the toxic stratosphere the country is paying a heavy health price.

Image: Foul smelling pollution hangs over Wuli Village, Nanyang Town, Xiaoshan District, Hangzhou City, caused by chemical dye plants and pigment factories. © Fan Jing Cheng / Greenpeace