China’s environmental problems have become such an embarrassment to its leadership that the country suddenly finds itself on a war footing. On Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang, the second-ranked political leader and head of economic policy, formally declared a “war on pollution” in a speech before the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress. The reform is welcome news, but overdue — and the outlook of the strategy Li outlined is about as clear as the morning sky on your run-of-the-mill, suffocating Beijing day.
Li called for the closure of 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces, the removal of 6 million emissions-belching vehicles from the streets, and new guidelines for air quality improvement in seriously affected northern Chinese cities. He described the state of Beijing’s air as “nature's red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”
This candor is new. One factor among many that led China to block Western social media websites in 2009 was the popularity of a Twitter feed run by the United States Embassy in Beijing, @BeijingAir. Every hour on the hour, the feed relentlessly delivers the calculation of the embassy’s Air Quality Index (an international standard) along with a terse description of the health effect. China also provides hourly updates of air quality in cities across the country, but US and Chinese data often conflict because China’s Air Pollution Index routinely fudges its numbers downward.
China’s government maintained such strict control over environmental monitoring that residents have been conditioned to disbelieve its reports. But in an encouraging development, although Twitter is still blocked, the US Embassy’s data is now allowed to coexist alongside China’s on widely available air-monitoring apps.
Public disapproval became especially scathing during Beijing’s first “airpocalypse” in January last year, when the density of lung-choking particulate matter hit an obscene level. Soupy smog persisted that winter, a product of the coal-dependent municipal heating systems widely used to provide free heating in the country's northeast. Later, in October 2013, when the system in Harbin was activated, the level of microscopic matter tainting the city’s air went off the charts. Traffic stopped; cabbies complained of being unable to see the car directly in front of them.
Last week, the state of Beijing’s air was bad enough to prompt talk of calamitous “nuclear winter” conditions.
Unsurprisingly, citizens and expats regularly discuss the “weather.” More and more residents are considering leaving the city altogether, citing pollution as a primary concern. Tourism dropped 10 percent in 2013. The International School of Beijing constructed two domes at a cost of $5 million to spare their students from the outside air. Other schools are considering doing the same.
Is closing some furnaces, crushing a few million cars, and using fewer fireworks for Chinese New Year really going to have a long-term impact in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people? The answer depends as much on China's enforcement of policy as it does on the policy. In recent years, Beijing, Shanghai, and other crowded cities enacted a license-plate lottery process in order to limit the congestion of cars on the road — but residents have easily found ways to game the system.
The real elephant in the room is China’s reliance on coal as its principal source of energy. Approximately 70 percent of China's electricity comes from burning coal — much of it particularly dirty and impure, by coal standards — whereas in the US the figure is 37 percent. China has tentatively begun to experiment with carbon exchanges in order to limit greenhouse emissions, but the effect of the exchanges on economic development may test the government's resolve to clean up the country. When Li announced the government's anti-pollution offensive, he assured his audience that it wouldn't impact China's aggressive growth target of 7.5 percent.
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