Strict rules help meet environmental goals #Caixin Weekly#-Sino-US


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Strict rules help meet environmental goals #Caixin Weekly#
Beijing residents could still vividly remember the choking smoggy days of last winter at the beginning of the current winter season, but to their surprise, they have consistently enjoyed blue skies and good air quality conditions.
 
In early January, the Beijing environmental protection authorities announced that the average density of PM2.5 in the city was 58 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 2017, meeting the goal set by the State Council.
 
There were 226 good air days in 2017, 28 days more than in 2016, and the number of heavy pollution days decreased by 16 to 23.
 
In 2013, the State Council issued an air pollution prevention and control action plan that ordered Beijing to reduce its PM2.5 density to around 60 micrograms per cubic meter of air by 2017, from 90 micrograms in 2013.
 
Beijing reduced the PM2.5 density to 85.9 micrograms in 2014, 80.6 micrograms in 2015 and 73 micrograms in 2016. So if the density only dropped 18 percent per year for three years, how could Beijing meet the goal by cutting 18 percent in a year?
 
In the second issue of 2018, Caixin Weekly, a nationally distributed financial and business weekly, ran a cover story on what Beijing and its neighboring cities have done to secure the capital to meet the goal. 
 
Below is an excerpt of the article.
 
Beijing environmental protection authorities said early January that the average density of PM2.5 in Beijing was 58 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 2017, dropping by 20.5 percent compared with the average level in 2016.
 
PM2.5 refers to fine particles that are of 2.5 microns or less in diameter, which can embed deeply in people's lungs.
 
Also, the density of major pollutants sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM10 dropped to 8, 46 and 84 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down 20 percent, 4.2 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively, compared with 2016.
 
Beijng is surrounded by provinces with a concentration of heavy industries including Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong. The city’s difficulty in air pollution control is that the air is not stagnant but flows from one place to another.
 
If the neighboring areas could not reduce the air pollution effectively, Beijing could not meet the goal only through its own efforts. Joint actions have helped Beijing cut the density of PM2.5 by 20.5 percent in 2017.
 
“The density of PM2.5 declined from 73 to 60 micrograms per cubic meter of air (in a year). Beijing itself should make hypernormal efforts, and neighboring provinces and cities also make coordinated efforts,” He Kebin, dean of the School of Environment at Tsinghua University, said in an article.
 
Coordinated efforts 
 
Since 2012, the government's battle against pollution has intensified, but the air conditions only improved a little from 2013 to 2016.
 
Heavily polluted days at the end of 2016 and in the beginning of 2017 forced the central and local authorities to conceive a work plan covering Beijing, Tianjin and other 26 cities in Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces in February.
 
To finally meet the goal set by the State Council, the central and local authorities made an action plan on August 18.
 
The action plan in August required cities to shut down polluting firms, switching 3 million households from coal to gas and electricity, eradicating 44,000 coal-fired boilers and renovating industrial firms by the end of October.
 
Before the heating season (starting on Nov 15), 72 coal-fired units were to be eliminated, according to the action plan. Hebei, Shandong and Henan are required to cut certain production capabilities of steel, iron, coke and flat glass.
 
All kinds of road projects, water conservancy projects and house demolitions must stop during the heating season. Cities are asked to limit the production of steel and other products related to air pollution by 50 percent or 30 percent.
 
The territory of six provinces and cities accounted for only 7.2 percent but consumed 33 percent of the country’s coal. The motor vehicles accounted for 28 percent of the country’s total.
 
This region’s output of products related to the emission of air pollutants accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the country’s total output, such as the steel output reaching 340 million tons, about 43 percent of the country’s total output. 
 
The coal-fired heating systems in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei increased the emission in winter, creating about 30 percent of total emissions, according to an estimate from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).
 
However, heating is a necessity for people’s livelihood in winter, and cutting the production of industrial firms became the key means to cut the emissions.
 
Shijiazhuang, Tangshan, Handan and Anyang that have more than 100 steel and iron companies with production capacity of 220 million tons, a quarter of China’s total capacity, were required to cut production by 50 percent in the heating season. 
 
Besides the four cities, Tianjin, Changzhi, Jincheng, Zibo and Jiaozuo also issued their coordinated plans on air pollution to cut the production of steel and iron companies by 50 percent in heating season. 
 
An insider of steel industry who declined to be named said that steel companies have suffered a lot by cutting production in the peak heating season.
 
Local governments have ordered the companies must meet the 50 percent standard or even exceed the standard to fulfil their responsibility. They have brought in all steel and iron companies.
 
Trucks carrying coal passing Beijing to ports in Tianjin and Hebei was another major source of smog in the capital. The ports were required not to receive the coal carried by truck.
 
The MEP has dispatched 5,600 law enforcement officers from across the country in teams to strengthen the supervision over 28 cities around the year. 
 
In a circular on April 5, the ministry has called the year-round supervision as “the largest action at the national level in the history of environmental protection.”
 
Inspectors would make monthly and seasonal supervision reports that would be submitted to the personnel authorities and be added as an important criterion to assess and evaluate the officials.
 
Henan governor Chen Runer presided over a meeting on air pollution control on November 30, claiming that meeting the goal set by the State Council’s action plan was a critical political task.
 
Except for the inspection team from the ministry, local governments also set up their inspection teams. For example, Hebei authorities would carry out a special campaign on air quality on 20 days every month.
 
The effect was immediate, with Beijing seeing the density of PM2.5 at 46 micrograms per cubic meter of air in November, only four heavily polluted days, which created the lowest record in five years.
 
Scientific and technological support
 
Zhou Weijian, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and environmental expert, told Premier Li Keqiang in a panel discussion of the “Two Sessions” in March that the government should gather experts in different fields to research on the cause of smog and solutions. 
 
Premier Li then said that if scientific groups could find out the formation mechanism of smog and its hazards, providing more effective measures, the groups will be rewarded.
 
At the end of the “Two Sessions,” Premier Li announced that a new fund would be set up to pool the knowledge of top scientists to find out the cause of smog, aiming to tackle the air pollution more effectively.
 
On April 26, Premier Li presided a State Council meeting to pass a plan to research on the cause of heavy air pollution and solutions, the MEP taking the lead in the research work.
 
On September 1, the MEP launched the program on smog research, setting 4 major topics and 28 subtopics. On October 9, the ministry announced the establishment of a joint center on prevention and control of air pollution.
 
The joint center mainly consists of experts from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, as well as other universities and institutes, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, CAS and Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences.
 
He Kebin said that there are 1,500 experts and technicians from central and local institutes in the joint center.
 
Hao Jiming, the first deputy director of the joint center, said that the research work has gathered the outstanding units and scientists across the country. It resembles the country’s past research on the nuke bombs and satellites.
 
As for the cause of the smog, some scholars put forward their views in the past, but because of the limits in their fields, there were some one-sided views on the cause, such as ammonia and nitrogen oxides.
 
Hao said that many factors were important in forming the smog, but they did not tell the whole story. “This time, we are going to do it on the whole.”
 
Four teams were formed to do research on the cause and sources of heavy air pollution; the emissions from industrial companies and how to reduce the emissions; making emergency plans when heavy pollution happened: and the hazards of air pollution to human health.
 
The joint center announced on November 24 that experts have examined the polluting firms in Anyang, and provided 272 specific plans for 76 firms to improve air pollution control.
 
Hao said that the research teams from the joint center will also allocate tasks to local research institutes and supervision centers, offering techniques and acknowledge to local personnel working on some projects.
 
Remote sensing satellites provided data to environmental inspectors and the large data analysis and artificial intelligence technology were also used in the supervision work.
 
A hot grid system was set up, with inspectors taking responsibility for patrolling and inspecting the emission sources in certain grids.
 
Long-term measures needed
 
While the air quality has improved a lot in the past year, it has come at a huge social and economic cost, specifically from switching from coal to gas and electricity for heating and limiting production and transportation.
 
According to data from the MEP on December 24, Beijing, Tianjin and other 26 neighboring cities have switched 4.743 million households from coal to gas and electricity for heating - 800,000 in 2016 and 3.943 million in 2017.
 
The 28 cities have over-achieved the target by about 795,000 households. Besides, other 30 cities in Shandong, Shanxi, Henan and Hebei also carried out the switching work of 1.5 million households.
 
Various factors are behind the local governments’ push for more households to do the switching, said Lei Yu, a researcher from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning under the MEP.
 
The quotas were added by local governments level by level; government subsidies stimulated local governments to raise it; and local governments considered a good performance to take it even further, he said.
 
However, when the heating season started on November 15 in north China, some switching projects had not finished, and some places have suffered shortage of gas supply, leaving some residents without heating.
 
The Affiliated Hospital of Hebei University has called for help from the Baoding city government to secure gas supply, otherwise the hospital might not take operations and sterilize clothes, which might endanger lives and cause outbreak of infectious diseases.
 
In Quyang county, Hebei province, schools in many townships did not provide heating on time, and students could only keep themselves warm by running on playground.
 
The MEP on December 4 issued an emergency document to require local governments to allow residents to use coal for heating at places where projects were not finished, and secure the civil use of gas supply.
 
Many companies suffered economic losses in the limited production and transportation.
 
On October 12, the Shanghai-listed Shanxi Coking Group Company Ltd published a report, saying that in order to fulfil the production cut during the heating season, the company would see a sales decline of 2.8 billion yuan from October 1 to March 31.
 
Delong Steel Ltd in Xingtai, Hebei province, has cut production by more than 60 percent, but the company’s President Wu Yujie said that the company has not laid off any workers, and paid them salaries and bonuses as well as. 
 
Delong Steel is the core asset to the Singapore-listed Delong Holding, and the production limitation has caused the latter’s share price drop by 37 percent from October 25 to December 27.
 
The supply of coal at Tianjin port reduced about 30 percent to 65 million tons in the first 10 months of 2017.
 
In December, 18 cities in Henan started to implement limiting the use of vehicles, and 14 of them implemented the odd-and-even license plate rule.
 
Ma Jun, former chief economist with the research bureau of the central bank, said that the production limitation, transportation and use of vehicles were administrative measures, which were more effective in a short period.
 
But the administrative measures might cause the repugnance among the public, giving the pressure on businesses, causing unemployment and business losses due to idle capacity, Ma said.
 
Zhao Peihong, a researcher from the Hebei University of Economics and Business, said that it was unsustainable to rely on administrative measures excessively. It might increase the financial expenditure, and cause public resistance.
 
Ma said that Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei could set up an ecological compensation mechanism, in which Beijing spends money on Hebei projects dealing with air quality, but it needed a coordination mechanism.
 
He also suggested that more market means could be used in the next phase to reduce emissions and handle air pollution, such as green tax.

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