Will Guangdong hit air-reduction targets? Governor not betting his life on it

Unlike other top officials, Governor Zhu Xiaodan has yet to show commitment to curbing smog

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 3:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 3:52am

If there was a buzz phrase from the recently concluded provincial legislative season it would be "tackling smog". Some governors swore oaths they would hit clean air targets that run to 2017, no matter how difficult.

"I'll leave the post immediately if the target is missed by even one single tonne," said Zhang Qingwei , the governor of Hebei , on the sidelines of the provincial session last week.

Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun , meanwhile, told delegates a central leader had pushed him to swear he'd "bet his life" on meeting clean air targets.

In Guangdong, Governor Zhu Xiaodan said nothing beyond what was contained in the legislative work report - that the province would clean up the environment and improve air quality. If Zhu was overwhelmed with urgency, he hid it well.

Provincial planners say they don't have enough information to act. Zhong Liuju, the deputy director of Guangdong's environmental monitoring centre, said officials couldn't accurately list how much coal-fired energy plants, vehicles and factories contributed to the overall smog levels. Without that data, an effective plan is impossible, and any meaningful reductions Hong Kong makes risk being negated.

The province faces another challenge in seeking to boost economic growth without crippling its efforts to improve air quality. Guangdong already has one of the mainland's largest capacities of coal-fired power. But it is pushing ahead with plans to build large-scale thermal power plants in the province's east, west and north, as part of a 670-billion-yuan (HK$850 billion) stimulus effort.

This deeper embrace of fossil fuels runs counter to what rival industrial regions are doing - Beijing, Hebei, Shandong and Jiangsu have all pledged to reduce coal consumption.

In Zhanjiang , the port city in the province's west, big iron and steel plants and petrochemical facilities are under construction. There is also an ambitious plan for additional road and railway links which are likely to drive up demand for cement and iron and steel, which are energy-intensive and heavy-polluting industries.

The province has yet to release an emergency system to counter episodes of severe pollution. Guangzhou has taken its own steps, refining a contingency plan that calls for taking half the city's private vehicles off the road, and forcing factories to reduce emissions of pollutants. The measures will be activated under an orange alert, which will come into force when the air quality index is forecast to reach between 201 and 300 for 48 hours at five of 10 monitoring stations.

Guangdong's air is generally better than what is found in comparable urban clusters like those around Beijing and Shanghai.

And the State Council's target for Guangdong to reduce the levels of PM2.5 - the tiny pollutants considered most harmful to humans - by 15 per cent by 2017 - is much less than the 25 and 20 per cent goals set for the other two.

But Guangdong's air quality is still far below national standards, which themselves are far below limits recommended by World Health Organisation.

The province's less developed regions have been relatively slow in establishing environmental protection efforts. The 21 cities outside the Pearl River Delta only started to release PM2.5 readings in December, while cities in less economically well-off provinces have done so since the beginning of last year.

Guangdong officials should also be reminded the PM2.5 reduction target was extended across the province last month, after the environmental ministry assigned each province a target. That means officials can't simply move polluting industries outside the Pearl River Delta, as some had previously thought might happen.

Their pan-delta development plan needs to be paired with a similar ambitious plan to improve air quality.