China pollution

Enforcement, not inspections, key to battling air pollution

Recent studies say climate change could be exacerbating the problem in China, which is all the more reason to pursue measures to effectively reduce smog

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 3:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 3:26am

The mainland’s environmental watchdog is rolling out spot checks on businesses and local governments across the country this year for compliance with legislation on air pollution. This follows a pilot scheme last year in 16 cities and provinces that resulted in 6,400 people being punished or held responsible for breaches, and a new study that suggests the country could prevent three million premature deaths a year by enforcing stricter air-quality standards.

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The study, published by a team from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in The BMJ, originally called the British Medical Journal, says lives would be saved by enforcing World Health Organisation guidelines for the level of harmful airborne small particles. However, three years after Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) pledged that the government would wage a war on air pollution, and despite reductions in emissions, the mainland continues to suffer from high levels of air pollution.

One reason, paradoxically, may be found in another study that suggests climate change may also aggravate existing pollution, meaning emissions reduction efforts may be less effective, or take longer and cost more because of global warming.

The study, by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and published in the US journal Science Advances, analysed the impact of global warming on regional pollution. It found that the level of hazardous, microscopic PM2.5 particles over Beijing and other cities in the east China plain in the winter of 2013 followed record melting of Arctic sea ice and record snowfall in the upper latitudes of the Eurasian continent. Computer simulations suggested a connection, with conditions reducing the amount of cold air, decreasing wind speed and making the air in China more stagnant.

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The same weather was repeated earlier this year, with Beijing and many cities in the northern mainland suffering severe winter smog. The lead scientist of the Georgia Tech study, Professor Yuhang Wang, said: “We think the haze will probably continue in the future. It is partly climate-driven now.”

That is all the more reason to pursue emissions reduction changes to industry, energy consumption and lifestyles, including less reliance on coal for heating and power production. China’s leaders must press on with changing from coal to natural gas and shifting polluting industry from the plain. Politically that will mean striking a balance between the need for growth and the need to safeguard environmental health.

Systematic enforcement of the Environmental Protection Law, and not just inspections, would be a good start.