Smog Makes Beijing “Barely Suitable” for Life

Citing a recent blue paper by the Social Sciences Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China’s state media reported on Thursday that environmental conditions in the capital city are “barely suitable” for living. Reuters sums up state media reports:

Severe pollution in Beijing has made the Chinese capital “barely suitable” for living, according to an official Chinese report, as the world’s second-largest economy tries to reduce often hazardous levels of smog caused by decades of rapid growth.

The report [...] ranked the Chinese capital second worst out of 40 global cities for its environmental conditions, official media reported on Thursday.

China’s smog has brought some Chinese cities to a near standstill, caused flight delays and forced schools to shut. [Source]

Shanghai and Hong Kong—the other Chinese cities in the paper—also ranked low on the list of 40 cities. The Guardian notes the exceptionally strong language of initial state media reports:

While China’s state media acknowledges that the smog is a serious problem, the report’s language is unusually strong, and higher authorities may be attempting to blunt its impact. The Communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, put a positive twist on the findings, saying that its authors simply held Chinese cities to exceptionally high standards. [Source]

China’s central Internet censors ordered the deletion of state media reports on the paper. In what seems to be their contribution towards “blunting the impact” of the early media reports, the Global Times’ coverage sums up the blue paper while also stressing the misleading nature and exaggeration of initial reports:

Media reports saying that China’s capital city is on the verge of becoming inappropriate for human habitation misled readers by exaggerating the findings of a report issued  by  the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), one of the authors of the report has said.

By ranking the cities in these areas, the report aimed to provide upgrading advice for the cities, the author told the Global Times on condition of anonymity.

[...] But media reports on the Internet Wednesday focused on Beijing’s living conditions, quoting the report as saying Beijing ranked 39th among the 40 world cities in terms of ecological parameters. Beijing suffers from severe pollution, especially air pollution and smog.

[...] “A city’s livability also include other factors such as the rich spiritual and cultural life of the citizens and housing conditions. Beijing fell short in the latter with its high housing prices,” Shan Jingjing, a research fellow of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. [Source]

Regardless of the accuracy of initial reports on the blue paper, air pollution in Beijing and other major cities throughout China is undeniably severe. In recent months, central and local authorities have been making proactive efforts to combat air pollution by allowing greater environmental transparency, and formulating emergency response measures for future “Airpocalypse” episodes (as well as arguably less effective moves, such as destroying hundreds of open air barbecues). In a recent government meeting, Premier Li Keqiang announced the creation of a $1.65 billion fund to subsidize the eradication of air pollution. Reuters reports:

Premier Li Keqiang told a cabinet meeting the central government would set up the $1.65 billion fund to “use rewards to replace subsidies to fight air pollution in key areas,” the government said in a statement.

Companies which were considered leaders in their field at cleaning up their emissions would be given “incentives,” it added, without providing details.

The government said China had already made progress towards tackling smog.

“But the issue of air pollution has been forming for a long time, and we must recognize the serious nature of tackling this and must persevere unremittingly,” it said.

The government will continue to push energy efficiency and clean energy schemes, including better gasoline standards for vehicles, and replacing outdated gear and factories, it added. [Source]

Reuters has also run reports this week on the potential reorganization of environmental regulators aimed at allowing the heavier punishment for polluters, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s positive record in 2013 and hopes to soon expand their power:

China’s environmental watchdog vetoed as many as 32 projects with a total investment of 118.4 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) last year as it stepped up efforts to get tough on industrial polluters, a senior official said on Tuesday.

Zhai Qing, the vice-environment minister, told reporters his ministry was working to improve its environmental assessment capabilities and strengthen its powers to monitor and punish polluters.

“I think our ability to enforce and monitor is extremely important… and since last year, we have been constantly trying to strengthen our abilities,” he added.

[...] Officials have acknowledged that the ministry’s punitive powers are limited. Fines are far lower than the cost of compliance and many big companies are willing to pay up and continue breaking the law.

The ministry is now hoping to extend its authority as China’s new leadership promises to abandon the crude pursuit of economic growth. A new environmental law is likely to raise the fines imposed on polluters, and sources say the ministry’s powers could be expanded further in a government shake-up expected to take place in March. [Source]