China's Pollution Is Likely Here to Stay


2013.07.31
china-smokestack-jan-2013.jpg Waste gas is emitted from a chimney amid heavy smog in Jilin province, Jan. 26, 2013.
ImagineChina

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced a serious of measures aimed at combating pollution, particular northern China's now intractable smog problem, known colloquially as "airpocalypse," but experts say it would take a long time to contain the extensive damage that have been incurred on the environment.  

The country's cabinet, or State Council, said earlier this summer it would try to focus on reducing particulate matter that frequently turns the air of northern cities to a sort of beige soup, at the same time as boosting measures to encourage the solar power industry.

"The air pollution issue could not be a more obvious one for the new administration," the English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the Communist Party, wrote in a report on the measures.

The coal industry in particular is being targeted as one of the dirtiest sectors, churning out more than 50 percent of China's fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and believed to pose the greatest health risks.

Authorities in the eastern province of Shandong pre-empted Beijing with its own air pollution reduction plan, which includes targets aimed at reducing coal consumption by 20 million tons by 2017 from 2012 levels, and targeting peak coal consumption by 2015.

The northern province of Hebei is aiming a 40-million-ton reduction by 2017 from 2012 levels, while Beijing and Tianjin have each pledged a 10-million-ton reductions during the same period, the paper said.

"For the government and the people in this country, a once-in-a-decade window of opportunity is unfolding before them," the article said.

Experts skeptical

But environmental activists were skeptical about the new targets, saying the five-year targets are highly unrealistic.

"Economic growth and car ownership are on the rise in China, which is going to put a certain amount of pressure on the environment," said Song Xinzhou, founder of the environmental non-government group Green Beijing.

"It will also take time for traditional [heavy] industries to upgrade; it's not going to happen all at once," he said.

Song said much of China's pollution is the result of long-term accumulation in the atmosphere.

"Some types of pollution have accumulated over a long period of time before they got this bad," he said. "There are many types of pollution that would continue for some time, even if we stopped producing them tomorrow."

Meanwhile, Zhengzhou-based environmental activist Cui Cheng called for smarter controls on automobile use.

"At the moment, they are addressing the issue downstream, by controlling the population," Cui said. "If you buy a car, they limit when you can drive it. This is wrong."

He said quality controls should begin during the fuel refining process, and proceed down through engine design to improve fuel-burning efficiency.

"They should be making changes to the refining process, to the quality of car engines, and to ownership rights for automobiles," Cui said.

"What about all the public transportation vehicles? They represent a huge segment of fuel-burning vehicles."

No change anytime soon

Cui said China's air pollution was unlikely to change any time soon.

"Smog is a long-term issue; that's my view," he said.

"I don't know when [the government] says it can cut air pollution by, but personally, my feeling is that there is no way to achieve any lessening [of air pollution] in the next 3-5 years."

Around 600 million people are affected by air pollution and smog days that plague northern China, according to a July report from China's State Development and Reform Commission.

"This January, only on five days did the air quality in Beijing meet the secondary standard. Thirdly, the density of pollutants was very high during the haze," the report said.

A recent report by the American National Academy of Sciences found that residents of northern China could be losing five years' of life expectancy compared with those in the south, which has better air quality.

Hong Kong, where many in the city rely on a fleet of ageing vehicles to get around, is an exception among southern cities, however.

A recent study by the Clean Air Network blamed surging levels of air pollution for the premature deaths of 1,600 people in the first half of 2013.

Air quality data for the first-half of the year revealed that local pollution from vehicles is the major source of the city's air pollution.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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