China’s new pollution control plan. New weapon or paper tiger?

China_urban_planLast winter the air pollution in northern China reached the highest levels recorded and caused widespread anger across society. The new government has reacted to the challenge by issuing a comprehensive pollution control plan.

Air pollution is not a new phenomenon in China, but it has become much worse in recent years and the sources of pollution more diverse. In the past, the main source of air pollution was coal combustion in power stations, in factories, in district heating boilers and in homes. In north China this would have been supplemented by dust blown in from the deserts and from the bare fields in winter. Over the last 15 years, natural gas has been playing a growing role in the energy supply of China and has been displacing coal in industrial, commercial and household use, including in district heating. Unfortunately, although the proportion of coal in the energy mix has declined, the absolute quantity of coal consumed has continued to rise. National coal consumption doubled between 2003 and 2012. Even in cities such as Beijing, which have made special efforts to constrain boost the use of natural gas, the total consumption of coal has not declined over this period. Measures to reduce the emission of dust, nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide have started to meet with some success in recent years.

These longstanding sources of air pollution have been supplemented by two new sources: transport and construction. The number of road vehicles in China continues to grow, despite the introduction of measures to constrain the purchase and use of private cars in some cities. The gradual raising of vehicle emission standards has constrained the rise of pollution from vehicle exhaust, but its effectiveness has been restricted by the slowness of the national oil companies to upgrade their refineries to produce the required standard of fuel. Wear and tear on the road and on vehicle tyres adds to the particulate pollution. The decade-long and continuing construction boom across China is a further source of pollution.

The steady rise of these different sources of pollution reached crisis point last winter when a large part of northern China was covered in a blanket of smog for several weeks that posed a severe threat to human health. During January 2013, the daily mean concentration of the finest particulates (PM 2.5) was about 200 microgrammes per cubic metre (mg/m3), with peaks on some days exceeding 400 mg/m3 and on one day exceeding 800 mg/m3. These figures compare to the World Health Organization “safe” standard of 10 mg/m3, smoking lounges in US airports at 166 mg/m3, and the worst recorded pollution in Singapore from forest fires in Sumatra in February 2013 of 400 mg/m3. In addition to drawing strong complaints from citizens, these extremely high levels of pollution are causing many expatriate professionals to leave the country and, more importantly for the economy, is discouraging foreign tourists.

Tackling this pollution is a high priority for China’s new government which took office in March 2013. On 10th September, after several months of internal debate, the State Council (equivalent to a cabinet) issued an “Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pollution”. This document sets down a number of quantitative targets to be achieved by 2017 and a range of measures to help achieve these targets.

The headline targets relate to particulate matter. The concentration of PM10 in cities at provincial and prefecture level should be reduced by 10% over the five years 2012-2017. Certain regions have tougher targets explicitly aimed at PM2.5: a 25% reduction in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, 20% in the Yangtze River Delta region around Shanghai, and 15% in the Pearl River Mouth delta region in Guangdong.

The main sectors to be targeted are energy, industry and transport. The Plan reiterates the need to reduce the proportion of coal in the national energy mix to 65% by 2017, down from 67-68% today, by reinforcing existing policies to replace coal use by electricity, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable energy.  The absolute consumption of coal in the three priority regions mentioned above is to be reduced, in part by banning the construction of small-scale coal-fired electricity generating plants and only permitting the construction of coal-fired plants if they cogenerate heat as well as power. The share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix is to reach 13% by 2017, with the capacity nuclear power reaching 50GW.

The Plan sets some ambitious goals for the industrial sector, especially energy- and pollution-intensive “key” industries such as metallurgy, cement and chemicals. The energy intensity of these industries is to be reduced by 20% by 2017 and pollution intensity by 30%. The proportion of materials recycled by the metallurgical industries must be raised to 40%.

In order to control pollution from motor vehicles, the Plan exhorts Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to tightly constrain the number of cars on the road and sets staged targets to ensure that diesel and gasoline supplies in major cities meet the National V standard by 2017 (similar to Euro V). Highly polluting old vehicles are to be removed from major cities by 2015 and across the country by 2017. The public sector, including public transport, is increasingly to use “new energy” vehicles and to promote their use among the public.

In addition to these and other specific objectives and quantitative targets, the Plan contains exhortations to change the structure of industry, to continue raising energy and environmental standards, to promote cooperation between different regions of China, to increase the use of economic policy instruments and to improve the systems for environmental regulation. It also proposes that the systems for the evaluating the performance of government officials in the key regions identified by the Plan should include their progress in meeting these targets.

The Plan will need to be supported by a number of measures. In the short-term, these will include plans or strategies for the power sector, the identified industries, and for the key regions. More challenging will be the steps needed to change the industrial structure, enhance the role of market instruments in pollution control and improve the effectiveness of environmental regulation.

This Plan demonstrates the commitment of the new government to tackling air pollution. The wide ranging nature of the Plan reflects the nature of the challenge, but also renders implementation very difficult. Nevertheless, significant progress should be possible over the next 4 years, provided the leadership follow through in implementing the more clearly articulated targets.

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