China’s Clean Air Initiative?

While much of the world anxiously watched events unfold in Ukraine, on March 5th, to mark the beginning of China’s National People’s Congress, the Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, declared the central government’s commitment to reduce levels of air pollution. He advocated for a “war on pollution” that would “fight pollution with the same determination” with which the government fought poverty. In a later statement in response to clarification of his initial remarks, he stated that China must fight its “inefficient and unsustainable model of growth and way of life.” While he omitted the fact that China’s coal consumption continues to grow, he did reference the components of the State Council’s ten-point plan as an indication of dedication towards improving air quality. We have discussed air pollution in previous posts ranging from a focus on coal consumption to the challenges of syngas in China. The next step seems to be a look into the ten-point plan that the Prime  Minister referenced. So what exactly does this ten point plan say?

The Ten-Point Plan, or the “The State Council Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution” presents a set of state-led and market-driven mechanisms for reducing particulate levels 10% from 2012-2017. While much of the language is vague and details of the plans remain undefined, the plan represents a significant step of the Central Government towards dealing with air pollution in China. In its specifics, the plan also demonstrates the challenges that the Central Government will face achieving its goals. The plan’s includes the following components:

  1. Reduce multi-pollutant emissions. This includes heavy industry, energy production, and transport and aims to reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions. This component includes solutions ranging from reducing the number of inefficient coal power plants to dealing with urban traffic pollution through better transport systems and higher quality fuels.

  2. Modify industrial structure. This component includes reducing overcapacity as well as reducing the level of “backwards” and inefficient production in  high-polluting industries. This also includes limiting new investment projects to higher levels of efficiency in both capacity and emissions and terminating illegal investment projects that violate current laws. This will require coordination and cooperation from local governments.

  3. Encourage enterprise transformation and technological innovation.  The government will encourage scientific and technological research in both mitigating air pollution as well as  monitoring pollution levels. Policies will encourage industry best-practices to reduce inefficiencies and reduce pollution levels as well as spur further innovation into lowering industrial pollution.

  4. Speed the shift towards a cleaner energy mix. This requires reducing total coal consumption through raising external transmission by shifting to natural gas and other non-fossil fuel energy sources as well as limiting the emissions from coal-generation.

  5. Improve the industrial layout. Use better urban planning methods that protect environmentally sensitive zones and set standards for green zones and urban parks.

  6. Establish mechanisms for market corrections. Set policy to compensate energy / emissions savers while encouraging reductions in energy consumption and emissions.

  7. Improve legal and supervisory standards to enforce existing laws. This includes periodic provincial-level reporting of both the ten worst and ten best air quality levels through public disclosure.

  8. Establish regional policy mechanisms for environmental governance. These policies bodies will work at the regional level to coordinate solutions to major environmental problems, enforcement of environmental laws, information sharing, and pollution control and early warning systems.

  9. Establish an early warning system to help the management of extreme pollution conditions. This warning system should establish a threshold based on weather conditions for contingency plans to guide public behavior to limit the health effects of the pollution.

  10. Encourage responsibility at the local government and community level. Behavior changes at the individual and community level based on a sense of shared responsibility can help improve air quality.

Is the plan simply propaganda, or will officials match their rhetoric with action to improve air quality in China? This seems to be the question of the hour. Given the level of pollution in many urban areas around China and the growing demand for action among the people of China, circumstances may force the leadership’s hands into meaningful action. National stability could depend on it.

Spencer Jones is a second year student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His career in business process consulting and risk management led him to pursue a career in international economic policy and particularly the intersection of national security and economics.

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