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Smog clouds China's climate change efforts ahead of global summit

Toxic levels of smog have returned to China's capital Beijing. Photo: SBS News

As COP 24 – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – begins in Katowice, Poland, on Monday, China is struggling to contain toxic levels of smog.

This winter, heavy air pollution has returned to blanket the country’s north. A concerted government crackdown saw air quality improve this earlier year, but with a slowing economy and mounting pressure from its trade war with the United States, there are concerns that the environment has become less of a priority.

In northern China, emissions cuts have been revised down. Caps for levels of PM2.5 (the most harmful particles contained in smog) were changed from a strict three per cent to five per cent. While some factories in northern China are still being forced to scale back output, factories considered to have acceptable emission levels will be allowed to continue production.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment is also decentralising control over production curbs, allowing local governments to set their own targets, rather than monitoring compliance from Beijing.

Xu Hong Cai, the deputy chief economist of China’s Centre for International Economic Exchange says new “business-friendly measures” are designed to help struggling companies.

“In some regions, environmental policies were applied harshly and with a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” he told SBS News.

“It led to many small companies being shut down, suspended or transferred. This negatively impacted regional economic growth, so amendments are being made.”

But, Mr Xu says, China remains committed to its fight against air pollution. A national drive to rely less on burning dirty fuel such as coal has seen many homes and businesses switch to cleaner natural gas. This past year the government has forced three to four million households to make the switch.

The village of Tangzitou, north of downtown Beijing, had all coal facilities removed and replaced by natural gas heating earlier this year. Villager Bai Shao Cheng says it’s more expensive but worth it.

“Before, you had to carry tonnes of coal by yourself and burn it. It was very dirty. Now we can just turn this on and leave it,” he said.

“Clean air is central to the lives of common people. What’s the point of having money if our health is harmed?”

Researcher Zou Yi has photographed and recorded Beijing’s skies and air pollution levels every day since 2013. He publishes the results to hundreds of thousands of followers of his social media account Beijing Air now.

He said air quality in November this year had worsened compared to 2017.

“November shows a poor performance with a 41 per cent sharp rise in terms of PM2.5 compared with the same period last year.”

But, he says, overall air quality has improved dramatically since 2013, with an incremental increase in “blue sky days.”

“There are still bad days, but China’s general environmental policies are improving and the industrial structures are being completely reformed. So this change cannot happen overnight, But we know it’s getting better.”

China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, has pledged to halt its rise in greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. Ahead of the COP 24 summit, Beijing urged other countries to implement the 2015 Paris agreement despite withdrawal from the US. But critics, including US President Donald Trump, say China’s targets are too conservative.

China is currently building what it hopes will be the world’s largest carbon trading exchange. It launched the platform nationally late last year, but has yet to establish laws and regulations to allow it to function at full force.

“Fighting climate change requires international cooperation, it can’t rely on one party,” Renmin University climate expert Zhou Ke told SBS News.

“Carbon trading in China is difficult but urgent because CO2 emissions are directly linked to air pollution and smog formation. In the long-term, China faces more pressures from the environment than the economy.”


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