Air pollution

September 12 might in later years turn out to be a milestone for China’s environment and growth pattern. On that day, the Chinese State Council released the long anticipated air pollution action plan, a comprehensive strategy featuring the reduction of coal consumption and shutdown of heavy industries in a magnitude unseen in China’s development history.

The action plan is a culmination of one and half years of intense national outcry over air pollution, which started to gather public momentum from the winter of 2011 and quickly became the most discussed environmental issue in China.

The plan requires an ambitious coal consumption reduction of 73 million tonnes in Beijing, Hebei, and Shandong, three northern populous provincial regions that suffer the most from the haze. To put it in perspective, these three regions collectively consumed more coal in 2011 than Russia, Brazil and South Africa combined and were almost on par with India’s entire coal consumption.

The reduction target requires the three provinces to cut more than 10 per cent of their current coal consumption within the next five years – an unprecedented rapid U-turn given that these provinces still enjoyed a yearly average of six per cent consumption growth in the past five years. 

Supplying almost 70 per cent of the country’s energy demand, the past decades have seen China’s appetite for the black little rock surge hand in hand with its rapid GDP growth. The sharp reversal from the current coal consumption pattern is no doubt a bold declaration of a new round of environmental actions and a departure from the past growth model.

In fact, the action plan against air pollution is likely to only lift the curtain for forthcoming punches on other environmental problems. Months ago, the government outlined three priority areas – air pollution, water pollution, and food safety – and vowed to tackle them in turn. This suggests similarly dedicated efforts will soon be seen on water and food as well.

To understand this recent round of environmental pushes and the ones to come, a particularly interesting review of how the new leaders of China got in to the driver’s seat, may prove helpful. 

China’s Airpocalypse

Back in March this year, China’s once in a decade political handover took place during the “Twin Conferences” (NPC & CPPCC), the annual big political gathering where the new administration would officially be installed. Ironically culminating with this profoundly important political moment was a set of high profile environmental crises.

Just when the leadership was busy preparing for the “Twin Conferences”, Beijing and many of the country’s Northern provinces were blanketed by the worst air pollution. Historical PM 2.5 concentration was registered and the term “airpocalypse” was coined as journalists struggled to describe the severity of air pollution in Beijing at the beginning of the year.

As if the sky in Beijing was not embarrassing enough, dead pigs floating in rivers around Shanghai started to be found exactly when the leaders convened their two week conferences. It took authorities more than 20 days to completely remove the tens of thousands of carcasses from the river – a time of politicians competing with dead pigs for headlines!

These environmental scandals, an accumulated malfunctioning of China’s environmental protection system, struck at no better time than in the middle of the leadership transition. Inevitably, by imposing outstanding challenges that the new administration must face, these crises accompanied with growing public anger immediately placed environmental affairs at the very forefront of the political agenda.

It also arguably created an “institutional memory” for the new leadership, in which their daily agenda during the very first days in office was preoccupied by environmental upheavals. The environmental deficit left by the previous administration was now biting back. The new administration was left with no other choice than to tackle the problem head on.

How this round of environmental campaign will further unfold remains an open question. So far, China’s clean-up efforts have been largely based on temporary “movements” rather than institutionalised measures, putting the longevity of the effect in jeopardy.

Environment protection: A deeply political discourse in China now

Giving precedence to attempts of deeper reform over environmental depredation in China has been documented in Jonathan Fenby’s “Tiger head, Snake Tails”. One prominent example is the “Green GDP” campaign launched by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) less than ten years ago. By systematically integrating environmental performance into GDP growth, the campaign intended to adjust China’s development pattern and provide more environmental safeguards. The idea managed to receive political consent from the central administration to a certain degree, but was unable to secure provincial support and thus failed miserably in the end.

However, there seems to be a marked shift in the current political discourse on environment and is worth close scrutiny. The remarkably high level of attention being paid does not evade notice. This is not only embedded in the fact that a Chinese vice-premier now heads the special task force for air pollution and food safety, but also how different the leaders are beginning to view environmental issues in general.

Starting with the new administration, the authorities have already begun to frame the delivery of a better environment and safe food as part of their priority mandate – something almost exclusively reserved for economic growth before. As a matter of fact, last week a commentary on Xinhua, the official news agency, went so far as to claim air pollution “undermined the realisation of the Chinese dream” – putting environmental degradation in close association with one of the most popular official propaganda terms coined to strengthen regime legitimacy.

However, the move may prove itself no easy task. Years of extensive growth has left its deeply entrenched interests. The new leader’s campaign has yet to touch the sensitive areas. How will the provinces and powerful state owned companies perceive and implement the initiatives? Is there enough long term vision and willingness even if the green pushes result in some short term pain? Will sufficient monitoring and compliance schemes be put in place to secure the authenticity of the outcome? Is the central government prepared for the local resistance and willing to engage with further political capitals? These are still grand puzzle pieces key to reassembling the “beautiful China” the government pledged to deliver to its citizens.

We may have to wait some time to see the real turnout but one thing is already crystal clear: environmental protection and sustainable development is no longer as simple as the typical Chinese way of putting it – “green mountain and clean water”, it represents the ultimate test this administration will have to face. And by dealing with many of the fundamental challenges – accommodating public opinion and civil society, information transparency, law enforcement, institutional reform, and a shift of development mentality – environmental protection certainly becomes larger than itself – it stands at the forefront of the urgently needed social reforms of the country and will be one of the few early testimonials of the government’s ability to cope with the daunting challenges ahead.

Image © Fan Jing Cheng / Greenpeace