Gloomy outlook in campaign for mainland pollution laws

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 5:48am

Environmental experts warn that a campaign to tackle the mainland's air pollution through legal means looks doomed to fail.

They give various reasons for their bleak outlook, including poor air quality standards and local governments whose priority is still to maximise growth.

The extent of the problem was brought home last month when Beijing was blanketed by heavy smog on 26 days and saw air pollution readings hit record levels.

Pollution is cited as a factor by the growing number of white-collar workers leaving the country. In 2011, more than 150,000 mainlanders became resident in the major immigration countries: the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

So when property tycoon Pan Shiyi called for a Clean Air Act on the mainland last month, he received overwhelming support. Of the 57,000 microbloggers who registered their opinion, 98.9 per cent agreed that a law was needed.

Such legislation has proved effective in cities once choked by severe smog, including London, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

The mainland already has an Air Pollution Prevention Law, enacted in 1987 and last amended in 2000. Pan is a deputy to Beijing's municipal people's congress and his proposal was a stark reminder of just how ineffective that law is.

Environmental experts and lawyers have been pushing for another amendment, but even though a revision was drafted in 2010, sources say it is unlikely to be reviewed by the National People's Congress before next year.

And even if the amendment is passed, some experts said they were not optimistic it would bring about desired changes because some key principles for improving air quality - which would give teeth to environmental watchdogs - were still absent.

Wang Canfa, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the biggest problem was that air quality standards on the mainland were not set to meet public health requirements. For instance, even though the mainland published new air quality standards a year ago that for the first time included a recommended maximum level for PM2.5 - tiny particles that can penetrate lungs - it was set about two times higher than safety levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In response to lingering smog that blanketed almost a sixth of the mainland last month, Deputy Environmental Minister Wu Xiaoqing advised the public to "get prepared for a prolonged battle", despite the premature deaths and huge economic losses caused by air pollution, because it had taken developed countries three to five decades to come to grips with their own smog problems.

Repeated efforts from the environmental protection ministry to increase fines for polluters have all been stalled

Mainland officials have argued that as a developing county, in the middle of industrialisation and urbanisation, it cannot adopt the strictest standards applied in developed nations.

Wang, however, said lax environmental standards would only encourage local governments to shirk their responsibility to address public health problems and continue in their blind pursuit of economic growth.

Elaine Chang, deputy executive of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, said US standards were based purely on scientific findings about the health implications of pollution, without considering the economic cost of meeting them.

"There can be different stages to meet the standards, and the result is a continuous improvement over the years," she said.

Wang said another loophole in the law was that it failed to ensure the environment was not deteriorating, especially in some regions that enjoy cleaner air.

For instance, in Qinghai and Tibet, the air quality had always been rated Grade I - the best on the mainland's scale - but the law said reaching Grade II was enough, which meant polluting industries could be moved to those areas, he said.

Also, under the existing law polluters actually benefit from their polluting practices because the economic cost of breaking the law is much lower than the cost of abiding by it. Polluting companies can be fined up to 200,000 yuan (HK$246,000) for violating emission regulations.

In other countries, polluters can be fined on a daily basis, which can add up to a huge amount, without a cap. And they may also face criminal charges, which could effectively deter polluting behaviour, Wang said.

"But repeated efforts from the environmental protection ministry to increase fines for polluters have all been stalled."