SOEs, Rule of Law Among Hurdles for Clean Air Push

Beijing’s acting mayor has announced an array of new measures to combat air pollution in the city, following heavy smog that seeped hundreds of points off the scale this month. From Xinhua:

The capital will take 180,000 old vehicles off the road and promote clean energy autos among government departments, the public and the urban cleaning sector, which includes street cleaners and trash collectors, Wang Anshun said at the opening of a session of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress, the municipal legislature.

The heating systems of 44,000 old, single-story homes and coal-burning boilers downtown are to be replaced with clean energy, Wang said as he delivered a government work report.

The city will also speed up the promotion of clean energy in rural areas and strictly control dust in construction projects, said Wang.

He vowed to strengthen air quality monitoring and analysis, as well as the release of such information.

The promise of increased transparency, itself coming on the heels of a wave of unusually frank coverage in state media, was accompanied by a call for public comment on the new regulations. From Dexter Roberts at Bloomberg Businessweek:

In another sign that Beijing officials are, for now, leaning toward openness, officials will allow the city’s 20 million residents to weigh in on draft regulations aimed at curbing the Chinese capital’s horrendous air pollution, according to a notice posted Jan. 20 on the Beijing municipal government website. The public can comment on the proposed new measures until Feb. 8, the day before China shuts down for the annual Chinese New Year festival, said the statement issued by the city’s legal affairs office.

“This is important. Now public scrutiny should play a key role in promoting pollution control and enforcement of this rule,” says Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Ma’s environmental advocacy group plans to comment through the online platform that the municipal government has created for this purpose.

Edward Wong argued at The New York Times on Sunday that Beijing’s “extraordinary surge” in air pollution was one of several drivers of growing demands for political input. But Reuters reported a generally unfavorable response to the plans on Sina Weibo:

“These plans are just dreams,” wrote one user.

Others said the phasing out of old cars would make little difference in a city where about 250,000 new cars hit the road every year, albeit with supposedly higher emissions standards.

“These ‘old cars’ are what the ordinary people drive. You people can only dare talk about this subject when you start phasing out all the cars officials drive,” wrote another user.

Other doubts remain about the likely effectiveness of public consultation, enforcement, and of rules targeted only at the city itself. From Yin Yeping at Global Times:

Zhang Yuanxun, a professor of resources and environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that a lack of law enforcement will be a problem.

“The punishments enshrined in the regulations are too strict and broad. It will require many more law enforcement officers to ensure its effective implementation,” he said.

“The old laws were not enforced, not to mention this new one,” he said.

[…] “Also, just restricting the local atmospheric pollution would have little contribution to its improvement if there are no changes in the pollution conditions in the surrounding areas [of Beijing],” [Zhou Rong, climate and energy director of Greenpeace] said.

Wang Yan, a resident working in international trade, said she thinks the new laws should have been launched already.

“I don’t think I’ll offer comments on the new regulation since I doubt if my voice will be heard,” she said, adding targeting street barbecues is ridiculous.

At chinadialogue, Gavin Lohry suggested an additional measure that might help address a range of environmental concerns, from air quality and energy consumption to drainage:

Green roofs – roofs covered with plant vegetation – first gained popularity in Germany and have since been spreading around the world. They help cities reduce storm water runoff, cool the urban environment, absorb air pollution, insulate buildings and increase biodiversity. With enough green roof adoption, Beijing could realise positive impacts on the environment and improved quality of life.

My research on the topic found that in Beijing there is around 93 million square metres of roof space suitable for cost effective green roof adoption. If the cheapest and most basic forms of green roofs covered the suitable roof space, the urban environment would be substantially improved.

Under this scenario air particle pollution could be reduced by as much as 880,000 kilograms every year, equivalent to taking 730,000 cars off the road. The roofs could reduce storm water by 3.5 million cubic metres during large rain events, equivalent to filling the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square with two metres of water or 1,400 Olympic swimming pools.

Any boost to Beijing’s drainage infrastructure would be valuable in the event of more storms like last summer’s, which killed 77 people. But there are no easy solutions: the problems are tangled, often beyond the scope of local government policies, or out of human control entirely. From Jonathan Kaiman at The Guardian:

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China’s environment at the University of California, San Diego, said that there is no silver bullet for the country’s air pollution. The underlying causes are dynamic and diverse: power plants, small factories, automobile emissions, rampant construction, farmers burning coal for heat. “One of the things about the air quality in Beijing is that it varies a lot more than it used to,” she said.

Beijing’s air quality fluctuates with the weather – a strong wind from the north can blow the smog to sea, she said, while south-eastern winds trap the air against a nearby mountain range, drowning the city in a pea-soup haze.

[…] Beijing has taken significant steps to combat pollution – it invested an estimated $10bn before the 2008 Olympics to raise emissions standards, replace residents’ coal stoves with natural gas heaters, and relocate a ring of steel plants on the city’s outskirts. Yet Beijing still shares its airspace with six surrounding provinces which may not adhere to comparable environmental standards.

“One of the fundamental problems is that the environmental regulators don’t have sufficient authority and resources to overcome the forces that are creating the pollution,” said Alex Wang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on China’s environmental law.

The problem is indeed hardly limited to Beijing, as Peking University professor Pan Xiaochuan angrily pointed out while blasting the term “Beijing Cough” as an “extreme insult” to the city. Other cities have been even more severely affected, and Shanghai has not escaped. From Reuters:

Shanghai, too, is improving public communication of air pollution data, as Angel Hsu describes on her blog:

[… B]y far my favorite innovation Shanghai’s EPB has made so far is in the use of this little air quality mascot to communicate what the various levels of pollution on the normalized AQI index mean. For the most part, things take a sour turn for AQI girl (let’s just call her that, I’m not sure if she has an official name) after the Good (51-100) part of the range. I like how they coordinated her hair color with the official color codes of different pollutant thresholds – it’s a great way for people to automatically remember and understand what the different colors mean. AQI girl also provides a much more people and user-friendly means to calculate air quality, as opposed to other cartoon characters or anime figures that they could gone with.

[…] I can only imagine next will come a video game for AQI girl, that will feature her navigating Shanghai’s polluted streets, having to dodge roadside exhaust coming from tailpipes, all the while remembering to wear her face mask when she sees AQI readings above 150.

The Wall Street Journal’s Brian Spegele and Wayne Ma described the obstacles to implementing deeper and broader solutions. Proposed changes inevitably raise questions of who will pay for them.

Over the long term, drawing down emissions will require costly upgrades to industrial facilities and oil refineries, measures resisted by state-owned companies unable to pass costs on to consumers and local governments that depend on industrial output for revenue.

[…] Though attention over the years has focused on power plants and passenger-car emissions, China’s pollution problems are complex and spread broadly across the economy. Mr. Zhao, of Nanjing University, and a research team studied the effectiveness of Chinese government policies in curbing emissions between 2005 and 2010 and estimated PM2.5 from coal-fired power generation fell roughly 21% as cleaner technologies took hold. Meanwhile, PM2.5 emissions from iron and steel production rose roughly 39% to 2.2 million metric tons, according to the estimates, as output increased.

China is particularly struggling to curb what are known as secondary pollutants, formed when primary pollutants—such as emitted sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, from coal burning and other sources—undergo reactions in the atmosphere. The government has had some success targeting primary pollutants, but analysts say it is just beginning to target secondary pollutant problems, including particulate matter that is harmful to human health.

Spegele also discussed a range of air pollution issues with the Journal’s Deborah Kan:

Officials have been careful to manage expectations, stressing that real change will take years, just as the current situation was years in the making. South China Morning Post’s Li Jing spoke to Qu Geping, whose career in shaping China’s environmental policy included a stint as the country’s first environmental protection administrator from 1987 to 1993. Qu lamented that the present of emergency was foreseen thirty years ago, when China nearly chose a different development path to avoid it. He blames the lost opportunity on government according to “the rule of men”, rather than rule of law.

“I would not call the past 40 years’ efforts of environmental protection a total failure,” he said. “But I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth … and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.”

[…] But, Qu said, if the central government had respected a policy that it released in 1983, China could be in a much better place now.

“The State Council published a document that year, stipulating that economic and urban construction should synchronise with environmental protection, so that the three legs of social development could reach a co-ordinated benefit,” he said. “It was a pragmatic and feasible strategy, even more approachable than the notion of ‘sustainable development’ enshrined by the United Nations years later.”

[…] “Why was the strategy never properly implemented?” he said. “I think it is because there was no supervision of governments. It is because the power is still above the law.”