What Expats Need to Know About China Air Pollution

As the China air pollution issue rears its ugly head in the fall and winter months, China expats might be wondering what, if anything, the authorities have been doing to improve the situation.

In November 2015 some northern Chinese cities recorded the highest ever China air pollution numbers since air quality testing began. The reading for PM2.5 concentration was as high as 1,400 ug/m3 at some monitoring sites in Shenyang.

In our related air pollution in China article we discussed China's most significant legislative action to improve China Air Pollution; The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan unveiled by the Environmental Protection Ministry (MEP) in September 2013.

In this article we look at more steps taken by the central government to reduce China air pollution between 2013 and 2015.

For air pollution in 2017 articles please see:

  1. Shanghai air quality 2017
  2. China air quality 2017
  3. Air pollution solutions
China Air Pollution

Impact of Air Pollution on China's Economy

China is certainly feeling the pinch from its serious air pollution issue. Long-term health effects and their related costs are often debated, but many economic effects can already be felt.

Inbound tourist numbers dropped continuously from 2012 to the first quarter of 2015, and only recently started to rebound slightly. Visitors from western countries, however, continue to drop. One of the main reasons for the drop in foreign visitors is the frequent reports on China air pollution in the international media.

China Air Pollution's Impact on Food Safety

China air pollution has also been connected directly to another serious China health issue: food safety.

Chinese scientists revealed in February 2014 that smog caused by air pollution in China is likely inhibiting photosynthesis in plants.

He Dongxian of the China Agricultural University found that plants took about three times longer to grow in a greenhouse in Beijing than under artificial light. One more reason Chinese farmers must use excessive levels of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow their crops.

China Declares War on Pollution

The central government has taken notice of the economic damage caused by air pollution as well as people's anger towards poor air quality.

In March 2014, during the National People's Congress, China's Premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution.

China Revises its Environmental Protection Law

Following up on Premier Li's declaration of war on pollution, in April 2014 China's parliament adopted revisions to the Environmental Protection Law. This revised law significantly increases financial and other punishments for illegal emissions. The revisions went in to effect on January 1, 2015.

Ji Gang from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said the new punishments are much more stringent:

"For example, the provisions provide for accumulated punishments on a daily basis, meaning there will be no limit on how much fines violators of the law will face. The new law also includes provisions for the seizure of polluters' equipment. That is something we've been asking for over the past three decades."

Weaknesses in China's Battle Against Air Pollution

The local press often reports fines and punishments for violators of this new law. Many Chinese environmental law experts, however, say that the new law is too vague, penalties too low, and enforcement too weak, especially by local governments that rely on employment and taxes from polluting enterprises.

China's Vice Minister of environmental protection, Zhai Qing, admitted that poor coordination and communication between various ministries in the central government and between the various governments of different regions was also hampering its efforts to fight pollution.

A further sign that the central government was not confident in local governments enforcing the new Environmental Protection Law came when the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that it would carry out unannounced drone inspections of air quality around the country.

Previous inspections were not effective as factory owners were often informed in advance by local officials, giving them time to temporarily reduce emissions. 

Government Invests to Improve China Air Pollution

Apart from new regulations, the central government is increasing funding to tackle China Air pollution.

In May 2014 it was announced that the central Government allocated US$1.3 billion to tackle air pollution for the first half of the year, with a further $0.3 billion allocated in the second half of the year. This was double the amount invested in 2013.

New Law to Control Air Pollution

In August 2015 the central government passed a new Law on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution.

The new law requires governments above the county level to establish pollution monitoring systems and levy heavier fines for illegal activities that pollute the environment.

Provisions of the law include:

  • a stricter gasoline quality standard will established
  • local governments are obliged to ban low-quality coal for residential use
  • ban on dispersing toxic pesticides into trees and bushes in densely populated areas
  • emissions of moving vehicles will be checked by remote sensors positioned on streets
  • control areas for pollutant discharge of ships to be designated
  • greater environmental transparency to the public: 
  1. provincial-level governments will assess cities on their attainment of air quality targets and assessment results should be made public
  2. following environmental emergencies, air pollution should be monitored and details made public
  3. other items to be disclosed publicly: air quality standards, a catalogue of major polluters, contact information of environmental authorities, test results on new vehicles emissions, and sources and fluctuations of air pollution in important areas

However, the final draft of the law removed clauses allowing local governments to restrict or ban vehicles to fight air pollution. 

Other Steps to Combat China Air Pollution

Government steps to fight China air pollution:

  1. Banning imports of dirty coal, mainly from Australia, with high ash and sulfur content from 2015, as well as raising the standard for domestic coal extraction and transportation.
  2. Crack down on power plants not using sulfur removal equipment in China.
  3. Plans to introduce quotas for energy consumption of buildings in China.
  4. Charges levied on Chinese enterprises for sewage and exhaust gas emissions doubled in 2015, which will incentivize businesses to cut emissions.
  5. Increasing testing and research into air pollutants in China.
  6. GDP growth no longer the primary way to measure local government officials performance. Previously GDP growth was the main way to rate the success of local officials, which caused them to often turn a blind eye to pollution for the sake of GDP growth. In addition to GDP growth local Chinese officials will be assessed on their success in reducing air pollution in their jurisdictions.
  7. August 2015: More Officials and companies punished for their failure to protect the environment.
  8. China pledges to establish a National Carbon Trading Scheme by 2017.
  9. China pledges to cap its carbon emissions by around 2030.
  10. Subsidies for Electric Vehicles increased.
  11. Renewable Energy: China pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to 15 percent by 2020, and to 20 percent by 2030.
  12. New Law for tax on pollution emissions being drafted.

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