Will China's new pollution plan work?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 1:44am

The mainland's first comprehensive plan to improve air quality reflects strong resistance by local government and industry to specific and binding targets to reduce coal consumption - the main culprit for pollution. As a result, the plan is three months overdue and lacking detail, but nonetheless a welcome start on tackling a major health issue.

The authorities promise improvements in air quality in key regions within four years as a result of measures, including closing down polluting factories, improving fuel quality and reducing overreliance on coal. The principal aim is to cut levels of PM2.5, tiny airborne pollutants most harmful to human health, in major city clusters around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, by 25, 20 and 15 per cent respectively. Beijing has a specific goal to limit its yearly average of PM2.5 to around 60mg per cubic metre, still well above the national standard of 35 and the safe limit of 10 set by the World Health Organisation.

Perhaps most disappointing is the modest goal for reducing reliance on coal in the total energy mix - to less than 65 per cent from 66.8 per cent last year. Environmentalists had been hoping for specific and binding goals. Officials have since gone some way to meeting these concerns by asking the northern industrial areas of Beijing, Tianjin , Hebei and Shandong to cut coal use by 83 million tonnes or about 12 per cent by 2017. Government advisers say the plan could quicken the pace of the clean-up without sacrificing growth.

Now that there is, at last, a plan to rein in polluting industry, the question is whether there is a will to implement it. Without such resolve, a controversial proposal by the Beijing city government to combat vehicle pollution would appear to be doomed. Inspired by the success of similar schemes in London and Singapore, it is considering imposing a charge to discourage drivers from entering the city as part of a plan to improve traffic flow and air quality. If officials are serious, they should also make the alternative of public transport more convenient and attractive.