Beijing air pollution
The Chinese capital has for many years suffered from serious air pollution. Primary sources of pollutants include exhaust emission from Beijing's more than five million motor vehicles, coal burning in neighbouring regions, dust storms from the north and local construction dust. A particularly severe smog engulfed the city for weeks in early 2013, elevating public awareness to unprecedented levels and prompting the government to roll out emergency measures.
China faces protracted battle against choking pollution
Andrew Leung says despite the government's best intentions, China's major cities face many more years of choking pollution, given the massive problems created by breakneck growth
Last year, China suffered the worst air pollution in 52 years, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Outdoor air pollution, a leading cause of cancer, contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010. Industry and transport account for nearly 80 per cent of such pollution. There are now increasing calls for action.
The State Council issued an action plan on the prevention and control of air pollution last September, to be led by the state and driven by the market, based on the principle of polluters pay and using both sticks and carrots.
Beijing will reduce the issue of licence plates for petrol-fuelled cars by 40 per cent, to 150,000 a year by 2017, to be offset by an equivalent increase of licences for electric cars and hybrid vehicles. "China IV" vehicles of less stringent emission standards will be replaced nationwide by "China V" greener models.
New coal-fired power plants have been banned in the three main industrial regions. Nuclear installed capacity is to reach 50 million kilowatts by 2017, increasing the share of non-fossil energy consumption to 13 per cent, from 8.6 per cent in 2010. The State Council is to sign target responsibility letters with all provincial governments, conduct annual inspections and enforce accountability. The 10 best and 10 worst air-quality performers will be named each month.
So, the right boxes appear to have been ticked. However, decades of breakneck industrial growth have created such massive problems that an early transformation seems elusive.
First, 68 per cent of China's energy comes from highly polluting coal. China's 2012 coal production - 3.66 billion tonnes - was half the global total, compared with 1 billion tonnes each in Europe and the US. Even if all the heavily polluting enterprises were closed, coal's share in energy consumed would only reduce slightly, from 66.8 per cent in 2012 to less than 65 per cent by 2017.
Moreover, last year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) approved construction of 100 million tonnes of coal production capacity, six times the 2012 level. Most of this new capacity will be in regions like Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi .
Given China's voracious energy appetite, it appears that its heavy dependence on cheap but dirty coal is largely being reshuffled rather than drastically reduced, at least over the next two decades. Besides, China is undertaking the largest urbanisation drive in human history. This will mean explosive energy demand for job-creating industries, logistics and household use at affordable prices.
Second, it's unclear if the huge hopes pinned on renewable energy will be repaid. In a road map to a greener China by 2050, published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the share of renewable energy is to increase from 9 per cent in 2012 to 45 per cent, with a parallel reduction of fossil energy from 92.7 per cent (2007) to 45 per cent by 2050.
China's green quest has been marked by dramatic advances in solar, wind and hydro-electric power in recent years. Nevertheless, renewable energy is highly erratic. In the absence of efficient storage capacity and nationwide "smart" power grids, their utilisation rate lags far behind those of other countries. Moreover, the cost of renewable energy is much higher than that produced from coal.
Third, though the NDRC wants to see natural gas jump from 4 per cent of the total energy mix in 2012 to 10 per cent by 2020, including the use of "unconventional gas" such as shale gas and coal-bed methane, actually doing so won't be easy. China's recoverable shale gas reserves are at least as large as those in the US, but acute water scarcity and pollution concerns would inhibit unbridled extraction.
Fourth, China plans to have half a million hybrid and electric vehicles on the road by 2015 and five million by 2020. However, low demand, inadequate investment in innovation, uncertain standards and a lack of charging infrastructure render those goals far from within reach. Meanwhile, China's increasingly affluent urbanites are demanding more gas-guzzlers like SUVs.
Fifth, how cities are equipped and managed matters a great deal, affecting power distribution, transport systems, waste treatment, building design, connectivity, urban planning, and above all, citizen participation. The Communist Party's third plenum last year called for a new "ecological civilisation". However, the one billion Chinese consumers by 2030 will probably demand more energy-consuming devices and products. Unless a new minimalist lifestyle is embraced, a new civilisation will only be a pipe dream.
Overall, it seems likely that China's Dickensian city smog may take decades to get rid of. On the other hand, hope is on the horizon. According to BP's latest report, as China's development shifts from energy-intensive exports towards consumption and services, energy demand should start to level off from 2035.
Further, the State Grid Corporation of China completed a pilot study in 2010, and is constructing a nationwide "strong and smart grid", backed by solar and wind integration testing and research facilities.
To curb pollution, party secretaries will be held accountable for "natural resources balance sheets". An environmental tax system is being mooted. Given the political will and a more educated and environmentally aware middle class, blue skies may well return to China's cities, perhaps by the 2030s.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong