China's path to less polluting economic growth is full of hurdles

Insiders say a watered-down plan on air pollution is the result of intense negotiations with local officials worried about the economy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 3:17am

People waiting for the skies to clear may have to hold their breath a little longer.

The State Council's national action plan delivered on Thursday to address the country's air pollution crisis fell short of hopes held by many air quality experts and environmentalists.

Rather than the "toughest measures ever" promised by some central government officials, the final plan offered a series of modest, incremental goals. The plan illustrates the difficulties the world's largest carbon emitter faces in trying to put itself on a clean growth path.

"The new leadership has talked much about how the country will enhance environmental protection and force industrial upgrading to transform the growth model," said Li Yan, Greenpeace's regional climate and energy campaign manager.

"This painful negotiation for a clean air action plan was a good try … only the result was not very satisfying," Li said.

Since taking power in March, the government under President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly pledged to make environmental protection a higher priority. Xi and Li have said they want economic growth that does not cause ecological damage.

But the State Council - China's cabinet - appeared to make severe concessions during three months of intense behind-the-scenes bargaining with local governments and powerful industrial sectors who stand to lose the most from any effort to curb pollution.

Gone were the most biting parts of earlier proposals, such as binding caps on coal consumption and cuts to heavy industry in key regions. Previous plans had called for reducing coal use by specified amounts in the regions surrounding Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai by 2017.

Instead, the final plan says that coal should account for no more than 65 per cent of energy by 2017, a decrease of only two percentage points from last year. The government had already planned to cut the ratio to 65 per cent by 2015, so the new goal can even be seen as a step backwards.

The State Council has ordered only the country's most developed regions to reduce concentrations of PM2.5 - potentially harmful particles in the air smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter - over the next five years.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region must cut PM2.5 by 25 per cent, the Yangtze River Delta by 20 per cent and the Pearl River Delta by 15 per cent. Other urban areas have been told only to cut levels of the larger PM10 pollutants by 10 per cent.

The new State Council drafted its action plan in April, but waited until mid-June to publish a 10-point framework, which provided few details. In the subsequent weeks, environment minister Zhou Shengxian twice promised a more detailed version "very soon", which has not materialised.

Insiders said intense negotiations were to blame. Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, who oversees environmental issues, told a meeting in June that the plan had already been revised more than 20 times, according to Wen Wei Po newspaper.

The issue was even raised at a meeting attended by the Politburo's Standing Committee, China Central Television reported, citing Zhang.

"It is rare for a single piece of environmental policy to go to the top echelons of the leadership. It shows its high-level political significance," said a source close to the environment ministry. "It might also suggest that disagreement over the plan was so severe that it could not be settled at a State Council meeting."

Li Junfeng, director of the National Centre for Climate Strategy and International Co-operation, said some local officials still feared cutting coal consumption could hurt their economies, despite the severe and worsening pollution.

"It's all about the choice of growth path," he said. "Some still believe the economy will falter if it is no longer powered by coal and that is not true."

Professor Chai Fahe, vice-president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, argued the final plan was a "realistic" option, as it reconciled both economic growth and the environment.

"The plan already requires local governments to make greater efforts to tackle air pollution and the clean-up pace will be sped up," he said.

Yang Fuqiang, a Beijing-based energy adviser with the Natural Resources Defence Council, said quantified coal-reduction targets were dropped because the gap was too wide between the central government's goals and what local governments were willing to accept.

For example, Hebei province, the country's largest producer of iron and steel and third-largest coal consumer, was at first asked to cut its annual coal consumption by 100 million tonnes, according to the 21st Century Business Herald. That is more than double the 40 million tonnes offered by Hebei.

The final plan asked the three industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to "strive for a reduction in total coal consumption".

"It came as a surprise and disappointment to see the quantified targets on coal use were replaced with a rather modest percentage goal to reduce coal consumption," said Greenpeace's Li.