When Good Environmental Policies Go Wrong

China’s central leaders have been waging an official “war on pollution” for nearly four years, amid which local officials have been held responsible for ecologically unfriendly policiesonce secretive air quality data has become required and made public, an environmental protection law has been passed, and coal use has dropped contributing to a cut in emissions. Alongside the national campaign, the municipality and surrounding local governments have also taken extra measures to curb the toxic air that the capital has become notorious for. At The Wall Street Journal, Te-Ping Chen reports on Beijing’s heavy-handed environmental cleanup campaign, which by some measures has been successful in scrubbing the capital city’s smoggy skies:

The city’s often smog-weary residents are noticing the difference. “He can play outside more now,” said Zhang Li, 36, gesturing as her 5-year-old son zoomed a toy truck around outside the small convenience store she runs in southern Beijing. “I don’t have to worry so much.”

The shift shows what an autocratic government can do to overcome resistance from businesses and other local interests that stymied past efforts to meet a goal deemed critical. President Xi Jinping told the ruling Communist Party in October that a fundamental challenge they face is meeting “the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life,” including a better environment. China’s development has been “unbalanced,” said Mr. Xi, who called for a more sustainable model of growth.

[…] Beijing’s cleanup experiences won’t necessarily translate to the rest of China. The city gets the lion’s share of official attention, since Chinese leaders live here. Mr. Xi wants to turn Beijing into a model world capital. Its appearance on smoggiest cities lists in recent years marred Beijing’s image and dented the city’s appeal to tourists and foreign investors.

Reducing pollution in Beijing necessitated cleaning a larger area. In 28 heavily polluted cities in northern China the government has prioritized in the antismog fight, levels of dropped by 33% during the last quarter of 2017 compared with the same period the previous year, according to an analysis by Greenpeace’s Lauri Myllyvirta. […] [Source]

More on the successes of the northeastern China cleanup campaign from The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers, who notes that victories against smog in and around the capital are sometimes being offset by rising pollution in the provinces:

In Beijing, pollution fell 53 percent. Greenpeace estimated that lower pollution levels resulted in 160,000 fewer premature deaths across China in 2017.

The drop indicated that the government’s antipollution campaign — first announced in 2013 but accelerated last year for regions around the capital — has begun to show results.

[…] Even so, pollution levels fell less precipitously or rose elsewhere, suggesting that a concerted effort last fall to shift heating to natural gas from coal may have simply shifted the harmful effects to regions far from the capital.

In the northern province of , on the border with Russia, pollution levels rose 10 percent. In a statement with its analysis, Greenpeace argued that the results demonstrated the need for more government action, noting that nationwide the drop in pollutants was only 4 percent. […] [Source]

A 28-city-wide ban on coal-fire heating—one of the measures in the northeastern anti-smog campaign—backfired earlier this winter, creating a huge demand for natural gas that in some places was unreachable, and negatively affected many poorer rural residents. The coal-fire ban was relaxed last December when the Environmental Protection Ministry released a “double-urgent” letter saying that “keeping people warm in winter should be the number one principle.”  At The Washington Post, Simon Denyer further reports on the price that poorer regions and residents are paying for Beijing’s  successes in meeting PM2.5 targets—largely to answer long festering middle-class urban smog concerns:

In the province of , which surrounds Beijing, factory workers complain of slowdowns and closures that threatened their incomes and livelihoods, while residents have struggled for weeks in freezing conditions because their coal-fired heaters were demolished without supplies of natural gas being provided immediately.

This is the heart of the worst industrial-air-pollution hot spot in the world, a province that alone produces more steel than all of Western Europe. Here, cement, ceramics and chemical factories belch thick smoke, and when the wind blows from the south, a toxic cloud is sent north and toward the capital.

For years, Hebei’s leaders had been reluctant to do anything to undermine their own economy, throw people out of work and potentially generate social unrest. Factories that pollute but also generate tax revenue and jobs were seen as untouchable, and inspectors from the Ministry of appeared impotent.

[…] Last year, that changed. Beijing’s middle class was too important a constituency to be ignored, and the capital’s awful air was a global embarrassment. […] [Source]

At The New York Times, Yanzhong Huang outlines some of the campaigns that have made up China’s “war on pollution” over the past four years, noting that the rush in implementing and meeting targets has led to far less than perfect policy results:

As it hurriedly devised the national action plan in 2013, the government set targets based on incomplete scientific data, including from health professionals.

[…] The targets were also determined without the benefit of adequate research about the effects of pollution on human health. As of a few months ago, senior health officials were still claiming not to have conclusive clinical studies about the connection between smog and cancer. (Cancer is a leading cause of death in China, and lung cancer is its most common form.) Plausible or not, that assertion suggests that measures for controlling were devised with too little regard for its actual impact on health. Less attention still has been paid to the health effects of pollution on the elderly, a complicated but ever-more important issue as the population ages.

[…] The haste to fulfill pollution-control targets may also reveal a greater interest in satisfying the demands of short-term campaigns than in undertaking long-term structural changes. Unless the shifts are institutionalized, or at least routinized, they may not be sustained.

Centralized, authoritarian power is sometimes credited with allowing quick policy changes that would be difficult to contemplate in democracies, where checks and balances and political jostling can delay reform. But under Mr. Xi, political power has become so centralized and so authoritarian that it has perverted the incentive structure that drives and its execution. In such a system, even good policies can have bad effects. [Source]