Air pollution here to stay unless the economy is rebalanced
China is heavily dependent on coal for heating and power production and the winter smog will remain until there are changes to industry and lifestyles
Environmental watchdogs need teeth to ensure their edicts have an impact. China’s war on pollution has been accompanied by greater powers for the Ministry of Environmental Protection, raising its profile and authority. Its naming and shaming of a number of cities in the north for not doing enough to combat smog would once have been ignored, but is now more likely to be taken to heart by officials. Those who have failed to enforce rules should face discipline, although that will not address the practical constraints faced by local governments.
Armed with new powers to tackle pollution, the ministry last year came up with numerous measures to deal with smog that shrouds northern cities in winter. Traffic restrictions were ordered for days of high pollution and curbs placed on industries that burned coal for energy, particularly those that produce cement and steel. Despite the regulations, air quality levels this season have been among the worst on record. An investigation of efforts taken by officials in Beijing, Tianjin and cities in Hebei province found that in several cases, there had been inadequate planning and poor implementation of policies.
In China’s heady growth-at-all-costs days, the economy went before all else, leading to severe degradation of the air, soil and water. Local officials’ performance was judged on revenue generation and job creation. But pollution and its impact on public health, life expectancy and investment brought a realisation of the need for a different growth model and environmental reforms were introduced in 2014. Unfortunately, as the ministry’s report shows, some city officials have still to understand that times have changed.
But naming and shaming cities and punishing officials does not get to the root of air pollution. The nation is still heavily dependent on coal for heating and power production and the winter smog will remain until there are changes to industry, energy consumption and lifestyles. Natural gas will gradually be introduced and polluting factories moved from the north China plain. Scientists predict it could take two or three decades before targets are met. Making that shift while ensuring economic growth and protecting the environment will be challenging.