Win­ter brings smog back on public agenda

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS -

Two weeks after theMin­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion said air qual­ity in the Bei­jing-Tian­jinHe­bei re­gion had im­proved in the first eight months of this year com­pared with the same pe­riod in 2015, the Bei­jing mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment is­sued a blue alert for air pol­lu­tion. And that five days later (on Oct 19) Bei­jing is­sued a yel­low alert (the third-high­est warn­ing level) has pushed smog back into public dis­cus­sion.

To be­gin with, the re­bound in the in­dus­trial emis­sion level has be­come a po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal threat. Re­cent ef­forts to stim­u­late the econ­omy and in­crease the de­mand for real es­tate, along with ris­ing hous­ing prices, may be mo­ti­vat­ing the un­ex­pected in­crease in pro­duc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in the prop­erty sec­tor. Sta­tis­tics for Septem­ber show crude steel pro­duc­tion in­creased 3.9 per­cent year-on-year, and that of pig iron and steel pro­duc­tion rose by 4.1 per­cent and 4.3 per­cent.

In­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties have re­mained ro­bust, but emis­sion con­trol mea­sures still fall short of the re­quired level. TheMin­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion’s in­spec­tions of 1,019 iron and steel man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties showed 173 of them had vi­o­lated emis­sion norms.

Be­sides, a Green­peace re­port says there is a cor­re­la­tion be­tween in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion and air qual­ity: nearly half of the vari­a­tion in the level of PM2.5 (pol­lu­tant par­tic­u­late mat­ter with a di­am­e­ter of 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters or less) could be ex­plained by the change in in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties. As coal still fu­els a lot of in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties, in­dus­trial emis­sion will con­tinue to pol­lute the at­mos­phere.

Amid the ris­ing fears against smog, re­duc­ing the use of coal for house­hold heat­ing has been put on the check­list of the pol­lu­tion con­trol agenda for this year. Yet com­pared with the up­grade of the en­ter­prise-level end-pipe scrub­ber, it is much more dif­fi­cult to per­suade peo­ple to use newheat­ing de­vices. As a re­sult, the mo­men­tum to shift away from coal for do­mes­tic heat­ing is still slow.

Ef­forts are be­ing made, how­ever, to shut down coal re­tail­ing out­lets and sub­sti­tute them with do­mes­tic boil­ers. But even with sub­si­dies, the progress on this front is rel­a­tively slow.

Wind en­ergy, too, has not helped much in the fight against en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion. El Nino was blamed for the heavy smog in 2015, and things don’t look good for this year ei­ther. Although mem­bers of the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Sciences have warned that the in­flu­ence of El Nino could make smog a fre­quent af­fair, the weather phe­nom­e­non is not the cause of smog. Since El Nino makes the im­pact of emis­sions more dras­tic, air pol­lu­tion con­trol ef­forts have to be in­ten­si­fied to counter the ex­ac­er­bat­ing ef­fect of the weather phe­nom­e­non.

The fact is, tem­po­rary mea­sures can only help re­duce the prob­lem, not solve it. The min­istry’s monthly re­ports show a year-on-year in­crease in the PM2.5 level in Septem­ber 2016, in­di­cat­ing a short-term re­ver­sal in the progress of air pol­lu­tion con­trol. The use of tem­po­rary mea­sures have in­deed given us rel­a­tively clear skies dur­ing big events— such as the Bei­jing 2008 Olympic Games, 2014 APEC meet­ing, Vic­tory Day pa­rade in 2015 and the G20 Sum­mit this year— and per­haps can make monthly pol­lu­tion re­views pro­pi­tious. Yet they alone can­not solve the emis­sion prob­lem.

Bei­jing is­sued two red alerts last year, and then said emer­gency mea­sures had led to pretty good out­comes— 30 per­cent re­duc­tion in emis­sions and low­er­ing of the PM2.5 level. But we are still fac­ing the smog prob­lem.

There is sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween drag­ging down peak val­ues, pro­vid­ing evanes­cent blue skies and solv­ing the air pol­lu­tion prob­lem. The need, there­fore, is to work out a long-term road map to curb air pol­lu­tion.

Smog is likely to mar not only this win­ter but also many win­ters in the fu­ture. Yet it is still un­clear whether the high-level “na­tional ac­tion plan for air pol­lu­tion preven­tion con­trol” or “air ten” will ex­tend be­yond 2017. The newly pro­mul­gated Air Pol­lu­tion Preven­tion and Con­trol Law­does stip­u­late that lo­cal gov­ern­ments es­tab­lish air pol­lu­tion con­trol road maps, but such plans should be made keep­ing in mind China’s na­tional air qual­ity stan­dard, in or­der to even­tu­ally reach the WorldHealth Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s air qual­ity guide­line stan­dard. And un­til we come up with a long-term pol­icy to con­trol air pol­lu­tion, the fu­ture color of the sky will re­main a public worry. The au­thor is Green­peace cli­mate and en­ergy cam­paigner.


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