Last week I was having a conversation with my friend about the environment and we expressed our shared concerns about the ever-increasing rate of global warming – a problem compounded by political correctness. We were overly concerned that governments around the world are not doing enough to address this problem and my friend was quick to highlight some statistics. He said, “Did you know that over 2 million premature deaths occur in China annually due to air pollution?” Before I could respond that I was not aware of such data he added, “This problem costs the country’s economy over 40 billion US dollars.” I became curious and decided to do some research on this issue with specific interest in China, but what I uncovered is different from my friend’s (and most people) perception. It is true that air pollution is a major problem in China – one that threatens the very existence of its people. However, the government is doing an exemplary job to address this problem and significant strides have been made with tangible results.
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In 2013, China introduced punitive anti-pollution measures under the “National Action Plan on Air Pollution” initiative. Under this program, a cap on the nationwide usage of coal was introduced to ensure that different provinces reduced coal consumption to acceptable levels within set timelines. For instance, Beijing was required to cut its coal usage by 50 percent between 2013 and 2018 (Parker). Additionally, the initiative prohibited new coal-burning capacity, which means only existing plants were allowed to carry out such activities. These efforts have paid off and provinces, such as Beijing are experiencing cleaner air for the first time in many years. A 2018 study by Greenpeace East Asia showed that the concentrations of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, which is the smallest and one of the most harmful polluting particles, were 54 percent lower in the last quarter of 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016, specifically in Beijing (Parker). Additionally, according to Parker, it was established that PM 2.5 concentrations in 26 cities in northern China had dropped by over 33 percent. These statistics underscore the genuine efforts by the Chinese government to address air pollution, but such news is not common in the mainstream media.
I wanted to understand more about the government’s quest to deal with air pollution and thus I visited another friend – an environmental enthusiast who has been critical about China’s contribution to global warming. I did not expect my friend to say anything positive about the Chinese government and the fight against air pollution. However, I was surprised when he said, “China’s efforts to clean up its air pollution have borne faster and better results as compared to the post-industrial United Kingdom.” I learned that the government is encouraging its citizens to stop using coal stoves and furnaces and opt for natural gas as a cleaner energy source alternative. For instance, in September 2018, 300 residents of Tangzitou village were surprised and equally enthralled when the government confiscated their coal ovens before installing gas systems (Kearns et al.)
In other words, coal usage in the village was forbidden and residents are now experiencing clean air and environment for the first time in many years. Reminiscing on the situation one of the residents said, “You had to refill the coal several times a day and it was extremely dirty and very tiring. We stored it in our homes and each winter we needed tons of it” (Yu para. 4). The government is playing a central role in ensuring that air pollution levels are within the globally allowed limits. According to government reports, over 4 million households in the northern parts of the country have abandoned coal for natural gas since 2017 (Yu). Besides, car owners are required to use high-quality diesel and gasoline for reduced emissions into the atmosphere. In its strategic plan, car emissions from 2020 are expected to be comparable to the American and European ones (Wang et al. 317). However, the major focus has been on heavy industry, which is the leading contributor to air pollution in China.
In March 2017, the Chinese national government closed or canceled operations of 103 coal-fired power plants. Additionally, the government promised to cut steel production by over 50 million tons (Gardiner). On March 4, 2014, the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, indicated that the country was at war against smog. Such a declaration, which went against the conventional policy approach of economic growth at the expense of the environment, underscores the government’s commitment to addressing the problem of air pollution sustainably. This declaration was accompanied by concerted efforts to actualize the dream of a clean atmosphere in China. For instance, in July 2018, the State Council, in its 2018 to 2020 pollution action plan, stated, “China will cut coal consumption, boost electric vehicle sales and shut more outdated steel and coke capacity in the coming three years” (Wu and Stanway para. 1). This plan covers 82 cities across the country especially in major coal-producing provinces including Shanxi and Shaanxi.
Different regions are required to cut coal consumption by certain percentages to achieve the set limits. For instance, Tianjin, Shandong, Hebei, Beijing, and Henan are required to cut coal consumption by 10 percent annually for the next three years (Wu and Stanway). Similarly, steelmaking capacity in Hebei – China’s largest steelmaking province, would be capped at 200 million tons, by 2020, from 286 million tons in 2013 (Hao). The government is also keen to deal with small-scale pollution sources that are scattered across the country. In a bid to achieve these goals, companies that do not comply with the set regulations are being fined on top of having their water , electricity, and raw materials supply being cut off.
The government is also adopting other unconventional and innovative measures to curb air pollution. Speaking on TED X in April 2017, Roosegaarde noted that they had created a large smog vacuum cleaner and the Chinese national government is currently supporting the initiative to create local clean-air parks using this innovative technology. Additionally, the government has built an extensive network of monitors to track the levels of PM 2.5 and take appropriate mitigation measures based on the available data.
Interestingly, the Chinese government has become very transparent with its efforts to curb air pollution. Gardiner posits, “What’s perhaps most striking about the Chinese war on pollution is the degree to which the government has dropped its habitual guardedness to embrace an unprecedented level of transparency” (para. 11). The data collected from the PM 2.5 monitors and the different measures taken in different factories around the country are made public. People can now check local air quality using smartphones and if particular facilities are violating the set rules, they can be reported to local enforcement agencies via social media. Therefore, while air pollution remains a big challenge in China, the government is working tirelessly to address the problem, and so far, the efforts have yielded recommendable results.
Gardiner, Beth. “China’s Surprising Solutions to Clear Killer Air.” National Geographic, 2017, Web.
Hao, Feng. “China Releases 2020 Action Plan for Air Pollution.” China Dialogue. 2018, Web.
Kearns, Jeff, et al. “China’s War on Pollution Will Change the World.” Bloomberg. 2018, Web.
Parker, John. “How China Cuts its Air Pollution.” The Economist. 2018, Web.
Roosegaarde, Daan. “A Smog Vacuum Cleaner and Other Magical City Designs.” TED, 2017. Lecture.
Wang, Li, et al. “Taking Action on Air Pollution Control in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) Region: Progress, Challenges and Opportunities.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, no. 2, 2018, pp. 306-333.
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Wu, Muyu, and David Stanway. “China to Cut Coal Use, Curb Steel in 2018-2020 Pollution Plan.” Reuters. 2018, Web.
Yu, Katrina. “The Good News (And Not So Good News) About China’s Smoggy Air.” NPR. 2018, Web.