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Visibility near Beijing’s Olympic stadium is lost on Sunday to the city’s notorious smog, one of the many environmental issues that China is grappling with. Photo: ImagineChina

China’s latest green plan is up and running, but doubts persist

Pollution permit system is officially launched, although authorities admit it still faces challenges

After years of debate, the mainland has launched a pollution permit system that authorities are hailing as a major ­overhaul of environmental governance.

Under the system, environmental protection bureaus will issue emission permits to factories detailing the types and amounts of pollutants they are ­allowed to discharge.

The move is aimed at improving overall environmental quality through a targeted approach to managing polluters.

The policy will come into force by the end of the year for coal-fired power plants and paper-making companies, and then expand in 2017 to 15 major industries that discharge air and water pollutants.

By 2020, all companies discharging pollutants will be covered, according to the schedule.

The country is facing mounting challenges from pollution, including thick smog over the capital over the weekend. Authorities say one problem is environmental management policies that are not aligned with real-world outcomes, since cities or regions are evaluated on the basis of the emissions they have reduced on paper – through calculations of energy or resource consumption – instead of actual improvements in environmental quality.

Tourists wear protective masks at Tiantan Park in Beijing, China. Photo: EPA

One result is that no one knows for sure how much pollution a given company has emitted into the water or air. And pollution data, calculated via different methods by various government departments, tend to contradict each other.

In each of the country’s five-year plans, environmental targets are set to reduce a certain amount of air and water pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxide. But although each year’s targets are always met, the state of the environment continues to worsen, suggesting the emission reduction system is failing.

The problem is worsened by lax law enforcement, which means there is often little relation between the amount of pollution a factory is allowed to emit and its actual discharges.

Authorities said the new permit system would be the core of a revamped environmental management process, and that all other policies would be realigned. They said a factory’s emission discharge quota would be allocated based on a real-world environmental quality improvement target, and that factories would be evaluated on how well the quota and target were met.

However, pilot programmes with the system have made little progress. Some regions started piloting the system in the late 1980s, and about 200,000 enterprises in at least 20 provinces had already been issued pollution permits, China Business News reported.

Wang Jinnan, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, said there were challenges that still needed to be met.

For instance, with pollution statistics from various government departments differing from each other, it would be difficult to decide the emissions limits. And the permit system did not yet cover pollutants like heavy metals or certain toxic compounds, which were particularly threatening to the environment and public health, according to the newspaper report.

Furthermore, the system did nothing to deal with deeper problems like local protectionism or lax enforcement.