Amid heavy smog that prompted the closure of schools, construction sites and warnings to the vulnerable to stay indoors earlier this week, authorities in Shanghai have announced plans to charge polluters of certain compounds a "smog fee."
Officials said they will bring in a fee of 10 yuan (U.S. $1.54) per metric ton (1.102 U.S. tons) of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to be levied on companies emitting the substances, in a bid to help clean up the city's growing air pollution problem.
Authorities shut down schools and construction projects with a yellow alert as the city faced its highest pollution levels in many months on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the air quality index producing hazardous readings.
The move came after Beijing issued its first red alert, limiting traffic and calling on schools to cancel classes last week.
VOCs are a key component of smog and the most dangerous form of particulate matter, PM 2.5 air pollution, according to the Shanghai environmental protection bureau, and form the bulk of pollutants in the city's air.
The fee will be raised gradually over the next few months and extended to cover different industries, as well as penalties for industries who fail to clean up their emissions, official media reported.
Fees will be higher for industries the government is hoping to phase out.
The government is hoping that the fee scheme will slash the emission of VOCs emitted by industry by half by the end of 2017, as well as helping to pay for other pollution prevention measures.
The right direction
Veteran environmental activist Huo Daishan said the move was a step in the right direction.
"I think that this pilot scheme is a positive thing, because China's smog problem is getting worse and worse, causing concern both nationally and internationally," Huo said.
"It touches on people's ability to survive, and the main polluters should have to bear responsibility for that," he said. "They should be prompted to clean up their act, and I think this is a viable way to do that."
Environmental campaigner Wu Lihong said the fee scheme targets the symptoms, but not the root causes of air pollution, which he blamed on an obsession with economic growth.
"Environmental protection and economic growth will always be inversely related," Wu said. "Take Beijing as an example, where they said they would invest 700 billion yuan [U.S. $108 billion] [in smog prevention] from 2013 to 2015. Why is their smog problem even worse today?"
According to Wu, the government places the blame for air pollution on peripheral factors like fireworks rather than focusing on emissions from heavy industry.
"Even if they do pay up what they owe according to this scheme, then emissions will be still harder to regulate in future, because they will have the attitude that they've paid up, so they get to pollute," he said.
Online commentators also had their doubts.
Social media user @diannaoshoujiweixiu wrote: "It seems fair enough on the face of it, because it will put their costs up, but will they then focus on cleaning up their emissions?"
And user @yinheximiaoxingren said there could only be two possible outcomes of the government's plan.
"One is that the heaviest polluters will just move somewhere else and carry on polluting, and the other is that they will pay up and carry on polluting," the user wrote.
User @dadapicha agreed. "Profitable companies can easily pay up, because they will just pass the costs on to the consumer," the user commented. "Did our imperial experts come up with this stinking idea?"
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.