Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei take different approaches to beating smog

Despite their different stages of economic development, neighbours Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei share a desire to defeat a common enemy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 3:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 8:12pm

The governments of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province - known also as Jing-Jin-Ji - may have their differences in approach to regional integration, but the one thing not in dispute is the need to tackle the region's chronic air pollution.

With as many as eight of the region's cities usually making the list of China's 10-most polluted places, officials are under mounting political pressure to find a solution.

"Tackling air pollution is a focus of the plan," said Laurence Brahm, chief adviser on environmental economic policy to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection under a European Union dialogue programme on climate change.

After rolling out their own plans to cut emissions - including phasing out polluting industries and replacing dirty coal with cleaner natural gas - the three local governments also agreed that the solution required a concerted joint approach, as pollution pays no respect to administrative boundaries.

A coordinating committee was set up in October to lead the anti-pollution campaign, comprising not only officials from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei but also from surrounding provinces and several central ministries. Co-chaired by a deputy mayor of Beijing and a deputy minister of environmental protection, the group's main task is to provide joint forecasts on severe smog across the region and coordinate emergency responses when it occurs.

Initial results have been promising. In the first three months of this year, the average concentration of hazardous PM2.5 particulate - the tiny inhalable pollutants considered the most dangerous to human health - dropped by 9.5 per cent in 13 cities in the Jing-Jin-Ji area compared to a year earlier. Levels of the larger PM10 particles dropped by 8.3 per cent.

Hongyi Lai, a professor of political economy at the University of Nottingham's school of contemporary Chinese studies, said President Xi Jinping recognised that the region's environmental problems threatened the sustainable growth of Beijing and wanted to steer the capital on a course of healthy, environmentally friendly development.

"He has tried to overcome the persistent barriers to integration and development of Jing-Jin-Ji by pressuring Beijing to outsource its polluting industries, moving some of its population to nearby satellite cities, and by focusing on clean and high value-added sectors," Lai said.

At a planning meeting attended by central and regional leaders in Beijing in April, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli described tackling air pollution as the "breakthrough" target for the region's integration.

But other officials and researchers have lower expectations, saying the vastly different stages of development in the three regions could hamper environmental cooperation.

A research report by the Beijing Municipal Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, published in March, concluded the demand for clean air due to health concerns was higher among Beijing residents than their neighbours in Tianjin and Hebei, as the capital city was already shifting away from heavy industry towards a service-oriented economy.

Beijing has long blamed nearby provinces for its worsening smog. According to the capital's environmental bureau, about 25 per cent of air pollution is carried by wind from nearby cities, in particular Baoding , Langfang and Tangshan . Official monitors say the biggest source of Beijing's air pollution still comes from outside the city, beating local vehicle emissions, coal burning and industrial plants combined.

Tianjin and Hebei, still in the process of industrialisation, have focused on energy intensive and heavily polluting industries, such as iron and steel, cement and petrochemicals, making a coordinated attack on pollution more difficult, the report said.

For now, the central government was addressing the pollution issue by moving factories further away from Beijing and Tianjin into Hebei province, Brahm said. "This is not a long-term solution," he said.

The disparate states of development in the region made it hard to implement universal pollution controls, officials said.

For example, while Beijing had adopted stringent pollution standards for cars and factories that were on par with developed nations, the same could not be asked of less-developed cities in Hebei, said Li Lixin, of the regional coordination committee on air pollution control .

"Only four of the most prosperous cities in Hebei are covered by the special emission limits … poorer cities like Hengshui and Xingtai , two of the most polluted cities in the mainland, are still exempt," Li said.

Zhuang Zhidong, a deputy director of Beijing's environment bureau, said coordinating pollution reduction efforts in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region turned out to be much more difficult than in other mature urban clusters such as the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, which have enjoyed much more balanced growth.

Additional reporting by Cary Huang