China Pledges Pollution Steps

An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
china-smokestack-jan-2013.jpg Waste gas is emitted from a chimney amid heavy smog in Jilin province, Jan. 26, 2013.

China has promised major steps to improve air quality as smog and greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow.

On June 14, the State Council released a package of 10 anti-pollution measures to ease the emissions crisis, state media said.

Topping the list is a pledge to cut pollution from six smog-producing industries at least 30 percent per unit of output by 2017, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The government has already targeted producers of thermal power, iron and steel, petrochemicals, cement, non-ferrous metals and chemicals with rules to make them gradually comply with international standards in 47 cities.

The 2017 target is seen as speeding up the process in the six dirtiest industries that account for over 70 percent of emissions, according to Chai Fahe, vice president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, cited by the official China Daily.

Despite a series of efforts, the government has made only limited progress in cleaning up the big six emitters.

The same group was cited as the source for 70 percent of power consumption and sulfur dioxide releases as far back as 2007.

Signs of progress

But there are signs that the new government is serious about making faster progress on environmental issues after rising public anger over urban smog.

"It has proven that environmental crises can stir controversy and greatly undermine social stability," Xinhua said in a separate commentary.

On June 14, state media gave prominent coverage to an air pollution fine imposed on a Sinopec refinery in eastern Anhui province.

Although the fine was only 90,000 yuan (U.S. $14,670), according to the 21st Century Business Herald, a report in China Daily said it was unusual that the company was cited at all.

"Experts said the penalty ... marks a victory for local law enforcers in their battle with mammoth state-owned companies, which can have administrative rankings even higher than those of regional governments," the paper reported.

On June 19, the Supreme People's Court and People's Procuratorate issued a joint legal interpretation, promising tougher penalties for environmental crimes.

Enforcement "has long been lax and superficial in China," Xinhua said.

The tactic of "naming and shaming" polluters also seems to be part of the central government's strategy, which calls for "heavily polluting companies to publicize environmental data" as one of the 10 steps.


Disclosure could prove to be a big step forward.

"In China, the factories can just discharge without letting people know," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, as quoted by The New York Times.

"If we can bring them under public supervision, it would make a big difference," said Ma.

Air quality rankings of major cities should also be publicized, the State Council said in its statement.

Although some of the measures are new, others like denying bank loans to projects without environmental impact assessments were also ordered years ago.

Circumventing the rules has apparently turned into a separate business.

On June 11, central Henan province imposed sanctions on 20 environmental assessment agencies for fraudulent evaluations, Xinhua reported.

More serious efforts are underway, however, with the start of the first pilot carbon trading program to reduce global warming gas emission in Shenzhen city of coastal Guangdong province.

Beijing and Shanghai are expected to launch similar programs next year, China Daily said.

IEA report

The flurry of announcements comes days after the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released an advance excerpt from its annual World Energy Outlook, raising alarms about global emissions of greenhouse gases.

The IEA found that world emissions are already on track to exceed the danger limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the United Nations for additional global warming by the end of the century.

Although emissions growth slowed to the second-lowest rate in a decade last year, more needs to be done, the agency said.

The IEA proposed four measures that could be taken through 2020 to keep warming as close as possible to the danger threshold "at no net economic cost."

The recommendations include greater energy efficiency, less use of coal-fired power plants, lower methane emissions from oil and gas production, and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

The IEA gave China's efforts a mixed review, crediting its surge in renewable energy sources for one of the lowest increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the past decade.

Even so, China's CO2 emissions last year rose by 300 million tons, or 50 percent more than the corresponding reduction by the United States.

The report argued that China may have one the world's greatest "no net cost" opportunities for emissions savings, if it can only raise the efficiency of the electric motors used in its industries.

According to the IEA, China could account for 40 percent of the world total savings from efficiency gains if it could make its millions of industrial motors meet minimum efficiency performance standards (MEPS).

"While China has already adopted MEPS for some motors, their typical operational efficiency is 10-30 percent below the standard in international best practices," the IEA said.

Cost of upgrade

An industry-wide upgrade would have an enormous effect on power consumption, coal burning, emissions and environmental damage.

The IEA estimated that China could save the equivalent of 280 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2020, an amount nearly equal to all of its increase last year.

But Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the National University of Singapore's Energy Studies Institute, said the recommendation comes with a big "if."

The benefits depend on a series of other measures like appropriate sizing of motors, preventive maintenance and use of variable speed drives.

China's factories will need training, support and incentives to undertake such an effort, Andrews-Speed said. Higher electricity rates would be only a first step.

"These initiatives will need to be supported through generous loans from banks," said Andrews-Speed.

"Even if appropriate steps are taken, this will prove to be a long-term process, given the sheer number of enterprises using electric motors in China," he said.

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