China has declared war on its ‘inefficient and unsustainable model of growth and way of life’. The country needs tough regulations to fight pollution, Premier Li Keqiang said in March 2014 after concluding the year’s parliamentary session. Li warned that polluters would be severely punished and watchdogs that turn a blind eye to polluting activities will be held accountable.
China has been steadily increasing its spending on environmental protection, investing an estimated 1 trillion yuan in 2013 (£0.1tn) up from 602.6bn yuan (£58.67bn) in 2011, according to Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of environmental protection. It is expected to invest more than 5 trillion yuan (£0.49tn) during the 12th Five-year Plan period (2011-2015).
As a further sign of how seriously it regards this issue, during 2014 the government will revise legislation to ensure that all pollutants can be closely monitored, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told the parliamentary session. Polluters will be held accountable and pay compensation, he said.
Already under new rules that took effect in January 2014, 15,000 enterprises, including some of the biggest state-owned ones, have to provide real-time details of their air pollution, waste water and heavy metals discharges. They are required to install monitoring equipment and report the results to environmental regulators. In the past, polluters gave emissions data only to the government, but now this information will be made public.
Organisations such as the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) are ready to sift through this data. The IPE has been publishing maps on water and air pollution since 2006. ‘China’s environmental problem is so big that it can’t be resolved without engaging the public,’ said IPE’s founder Ma Jun, ‘and access to information is the pre-condition for any meaningful public participation.’
There is clear evidence of a trend towards greater transparency, comments Chris Nielsen, executive director of Harvard University’s China Project. For instance, a growing number of cities now publish real-time fine particulate concentrations on public websites, he says. Nielsen expects the government to enforce the new requirements for enterprises more vigorously than in the past. ‘Enforcement is critical. It is a problem when regulated enterprises [such as the big state-owned industrial enterprises] have bureaucratic power that is stronger than that of the regulating agencies.’
Air pollution is a particular concern, Nielsen notes. ‘The leadership are very worried because there have been a series of particularly bad pollution episodes, there is a groundswell of concern in the public, and they can see how it is degrading China’s development progress and international reputation.’
The burning of coal – in the power generation, steel and cement industries – is the primary source of air pollution in China. Burning coal releases particulate matter into the air, as well as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
However, air pollution problems are complex. ‘Controlling air pollution is a moving target, evolving as the structure of China’s economy evolves and its urbanisation continues,’ Nielsen says. ‘Scientists are still working feverishly to [understand] the latest pollution challenges. This does not get the Chinese government off the hook … but it should help us recognise that it also needs help.’
Using official data published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection for 2013, Greenpeace produced a ranking of 74 Chinese cities by levels of PM2.5 – particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less – air pollution. It found that almost 92% of these cities have average annual PM2.5 air pollution concentrations that fail to reach the national standard of 35 micrograms/m3.
Of the top 10 worse polluted cities in the ranking, seven are located in Hebei Province, the province that surrounds Beijing. Beijing sits at number 13. Air pollution in cities located within the Yangtze River Delta region (including Shanghai) is also becoming increasingly serious. Many cities in the central and western provinces are seeing air pollution levels twice the national standard.
China’s coal habit
When it comes to China’s air pollution crisis, the main culprit is coal. According to the China Energy Statistical Yearbook 2013, published by the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s coal consumption growth fell to 2.8% in 2012. This is a significant slowdown, considering the country has been addicted to coal over the past decade, averaging a growth rate of 9%.
Ten provinces and cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, burned less coal in 2012, compared with 2011. In total, these 10 regions reduced their coal use by 66.5m t.
The three key economic regions – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Guangdong – reduced their coal use in 2012 by 0.7% year-on-year. These three highly-developed areas burned over 1bn t of coal, accounting for 30% of China’s total coal consumption in 2012, or as much as the US and Japan combined.