China reshuffles environment body to curb air pollution

A man rides a bicycle in a polluted village in Hebei. Photo: Simon Song

China has upgraded an organization responsible for coordinating the work of air pollution control in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding areas to a leading team headed by the vice premier of the State Council, a move that signals the government's strengthened resolve to combat heavy smog.

Led by Han Zheng, China's vice premier, the new team, officially named the leading group for air pollution control of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding areas, is tasked with implementing the policies made by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council to solve the air pollution problems and evaluating the efforts by the local authorities to prevent and control air pollution, according to a notice published on the website of the State Council, the country's cabinet.

The related government agencies and provincial governments will annually report their progress to the leading group, whose members are senior officials at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Transport, the China Meteorological Administration, the National Energy Administration as well as mayors and governors of smog-afflicted provinces and cities in northern China.

The new leading group is derived from the coordinating group for air pollution control of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding areas, which was established in 2013, when a national plan for air pollution control was designed and listed among a total of 10 measures to deal with air pollution problems in the northern cities and provinces as well as the Yangtze River Delta including reducing the emissions of pollutants, phasing out the outdated production capacities and increasing the supply of natural gas. At the end of 2017, the Chinese government scored a periodic victory in realizing the major targets set by the 2013 plan.

The organizational upgrade comes two weeks after the State Council rolled out an ambitious three-year action plan, which sets goals for the reduction of emissions of air pollutants, greenhouse gas and PM2.5 for the next three years, in an effort to further improve the air quality in the regions badly affected by smog including the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding provinces, the Yangtze River Delta as well as the Fenhe and Weihe river plains.

The action plan calls for a renewed effort on optimizing industrial structure, establishing green, low-carbon energy system, developing green transportation network, expanding anti-pollution projects and deepening regional coordination in pollution control in fight for more blue skies.

According to the action plan, the environment-related policies and laws will be improved and an appraisal system, under which the local environment officials will be held responsible for their inability to improve air quality, will be established.

The organizational reshuffle, which is made based on the practical experience of the past five years, will bring the work of air pollution control under "a more authoritative and integrated management mechanism", which is helpful in optimizing the roles of the local governments in environmental protection, said Wu Shunze, director of the Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

Wang Jinnan, head of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment's Academy of Environmental Planning, said that the new leading group could help China better complete the environmental protection tasks in the next, difficult phase, when the industrial structure, energy structure and transportation structure need to be further improved and the emissions of pollutants are expected to increase with the economic growth especially in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding provinces, where the density of pollutants is four times higher than the country's average level.

According to the three-year action plan, the emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide must drop by 15 percent from the 2015 levels by 2020, when the cities at the prefecture level and above which failed to meet the PM2.5 density requirement should decrease the density of PM2.5 by 18 percent from 2015. The action plan also requires the cities at the prefecture level and above to have good air quality on 80 percent of the days in a year and decrease the number of heavily polluted days by 25 percent compared with 2015.

Last week, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress, China's top legislature, held its fourth session in Beijing, where lawmakers reviewed a work report about air pollution control and proposed suggestions for achieving the goals of the three-year action plan.

Xin Guobin, vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told lawmakers that the production capacities of steel, coke, electrolytic aluminum and cement in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding provinces, the Yangtze River Delta as well as the Fenhe and Weihe river plains will be strictly curbed.

Xin's pledge came as Reuters reported that Tangshan, the largest steelmaking city in northern China's Hebei province, had ordered its steel mills and coke producers to cut output further this summer in a bid to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 31 percent, nitrogen dioxide emissions by 21 percent and carbon monoxide emissions by 24 percent by the end of August compared with the average emission levels in the first half of this year.

Being home to some 100 steel plants that account for nearly a quarter of China's total steel output, Hebei province is known as the most polluted province in the country.

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