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China air pollution

Cool change on smog policy as Chinese officials warn of long fight ahead

Gone is the determined and optimistic tone of the past, ­with officials admitting that few gains have been made in clearing the air

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 12:41am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 11:42am

Chinese officials are trying to scale back public expectations about the fight against air pollution, saying it will be a long and uphill battle.

In contrast to the determined and optimistic tone of the past, ­officials have admitted that few gains have been made in clearing the air.

The change in outlook comes as northern China breathed a little easier on the weekend. On Saturday night, a cold front from the north finally swept away smog that had hung over the region for eight days. That spell followed six continuous days of smog in mid-December.

The poor air quality reflects the failure of previous commitments to tackle pollution.

In 2014, as Beijing launched a 760 billion yuan (HK$852 billion) fund to clean up the city’s air, then mayor Wang Anshun vowed to solve the smog problem by 2017.

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The governor of neighbouring Hebei province, which relies on the steel industry, pledged last March that air quality in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region would see a “remarkable improvement” in three to five years.

But the official tone has changed. On Saturday, acting Beijing mayor Cai Qi said he shared the public’s frustration over air pollution. “I completely understand people’s concern, anxiety and complaints about the smog in Beijing,” he said. “I feel deeply uneasy about the ... inconvenience it caused for people in their lives.”

It followed a decision in November to reset the ambitious 2017 goal.

Instead of cutting levels of PM2.5 – the finest pollutants most hazardous to human health – by more than a third from 2013 to an average of 56 micrograms per cubic metre by 2017, the aim is to do so by 2020.

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Also, in a rare show of candour Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining said on Friday that the ministry had made no progress in cutting air pollution this winter, and he “felt guilty” about the poor air quality.

“We have made progress if we look at the full year. But if we only look at the winter, the progress has been very limited, or even non-existent,” Chen said.

Meanwhile, the country’s top health regulator had also set up a special task force to deliver more detailed surveys on smog-related disease and greater awareness of the health impact of air pollution, it said on Saturday.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission said it would also push for the country to establish standards for smog-monitoring equipment.