What is the solution to smog

New methods of fighting China's deadly air


China's war on air pollution is part of a larger inventory of the health and environmental disaster wrought by rapid industrialization over the past few decades. The economic boom has saved hundreds of millions of people out of poverty - and Tangshan even from its ruins. But it has also given many of them undrinkable water, contaminated food and poisonous air.

Meanwhile, government officials are "very serious" about improving air quality, says Tonny Xie, secretary of the Clean Air Alliance of China. “I'm sure of that.” Allianz, a group of think tanks and university experts, advises the government on pollution issues.

Government efforts cover a wide field. Chinese cities are pushing residents to get rid of their domestic coal stoves and stoves. The authorities are demanding higher quality gasoline and diesel for vehicles. The emissions guidelines for cars due to come into force in 2020 are comparable to those in Europe and the USA.

But the focus remains on heavy industry. In March, the government announced the closure or freeze of construction of a total of 103 coal-fired power plants that can generate a total of more than 50 gigawatts of electricity. It has also announced that it will reduce steel production by another 50 million tons.

Public anger over air pollution has forced the government to act. Particulate matter pollution in the Beijing region fell by more than 25 percent in 2014 and 2015 as a result of these cuts, but rose again in late 2016 and 2017. An analysis by Greenpeace reveals the reason for this: Steel production increased in 2016 despite the previous reduction in capacities. The reason was that the central government stimulated demand and local authorities protected their factories.

Public outcry over the pollution provides the central government with political cover for some painful decisions it must make for non-environmental reasons. The excess capacity in the steel, cement, glass and energy sectors, fueled by dangerously high debt, is widely regarded as an economic time bomb. The country's leaders know they need to defuse this.

But heavy industry "is a sector that is not easily accessible" because it creates jobs and is dominated by powerful state corporations, says Ma Tianjie. He is the editor-in-chief of Chinadialogue, an independent London-based website that deals with environmental issues. "This outcry from the urban middle class over air pollution basically gives the country's leadership legitimacy to push through some of the difficult reforms they wanted to bring about."


Perhaps the most striking feature of China's war on air pollution is how much the government has dropped its other caution and welcomed an unprecedented level of transparency. Pollution is an issue on which there has been persistent public debate in China.

At breathtaking (but typically Chinese) speed, the government has built a nationwide monitoring network that measures the concentration of PM2.5 - the tiny fine dust particles that penetrate deep into the body and cause not only breathing problems, but also heart attacks, strokes and neurological diseases.

What's even more surprising is that the government has made the data from these surveillance devices public. The same goes for measurements outside of thousands of factories. Anyone in China with a smartphone can now check local air quality in real time and see if a particular factory is exceeding emissions limits. Violations can be reported to the local law enforcement officers directly via social media. The level of information is comparable to that in the USA.

This development marks a change in the relationship between China's people and its government, says Ma Jun of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs. The institute has programmed an app that also accesses government data.

"There is a chance to take a new path, almost a new form of government," he says. "This is a very rare opportunity."

The government remains authoritarian, of course. Beijing leaders are evaluating the performance of those in the provinces - however, rewriting the criteria is slowly causing a rethink, Xie said. In the old system, the local authorities were assessed almost exclusively on the basis of the economic success of their region. Now environmental issues, especially air cleanliness, are becoming more important.

In a top-down system where such judgments can influence political careers, change has caught the attention of bureaucrats. Mayors who have failed to meet air quality targets can be summoned to the Ministry of Environment and warned to step up their efforts.

Sometimes the results are more cosmetic in nature. For example, executives order the temporary closure of factories before important events such as international summits. Or they close factories for weeks in November and December so the city doesn't exceed its annual pollution limit. Such last-minute measures "highlight the need to bring environmental considerations into the decision-making process much earlier," said Ma Tianjie of Chinadialogue.