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China Charts a Course for Blue Skies


China’s leadership is finally taking the country’s horrific air pollution seriously, putting in place yesterday a slate of measures aimed at solving the problem. And what a problem it is: every year, air pollution kills an estimated 700,000 people in China, and costs the country 5.78 percent of its GDP in health care costs, premature deaths, and material damages. The toxic smog in Beijing is routinely off-the-charts bad, and is driving away many of the capital’s best and brightest. Add to that an increasingly restive population, newly empowered by social media platforms like Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—and you’ve got a recipe for political instability.

Among the 10 measures announced today are requirements for heavy industry to reduce their emissions per unit of output, mandates for increased coordination of pollutions-reducing efforts between provinces and cities, and a nationwide standard for cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel. But the NYT reports on one measure that caught many by surprise:

The newest and least-expected of them is a mandate that heavy polluters like coal-fired power plants and metal smelters must release detailed environmental information to the general public.

Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the best-known independent environmental activist groups in Beijing, said that 5,000 of the country’s biggest factories account for three-fifths of its industrial pollution, but that the public knows few details about their emissions.

“In China, the factories can just discharge without letting people know,” he said. “If we can bring them under public supervision, it would make a big difference.”

We wish China luck in this endeavor; its people need and are coming to expect more from their government. Whether or not Beijing’s new approach will work remains to be seen. China consumes nearly half of the world’s coal—one of the key culprits behind the country’s air pollution—and we’re unlikely to see a significant shift in China’s energy mix anytime soon.

Even more problematic is the likelihood that cities and provinces will try to skirt, hedge, or straight-up ignore these new measures handed down from on high. Ambitious local bureaucrats have a lot to gain by fudging the numbers. But it’s not just that the locals have perverse incentives to skirt central government demands: the central government doesn’t have the ability to enforce its laws on the local level.

There are a lot of ways for this to go wrong, but it looks like a good start.

[Man wearing a mask in Beijing image courtesy of Getty]

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  • Douglas Levene

    It’s not completely true that the central authorities lack control over the provinces. It is true that the Government in Beijing lacks direct control. However, the real power in China is the Communist Party, and the Party’s central apparatus (the Operations Department of the CCP) appoints all the Provincial Governors and many mayors and SOE executives. Of course, the major criteria for promotion in the Chinese system is economic growth in the region/company that the politician/executive has been running (the other major criteria is loyalty to the Party). If that is changed to take account of pollution, then China will see progress on the environmental front. Otherwise, not.

  • bpuharic

    Interesting that their recognition of the social and human costs of pollution contrast with our free market fundamentalists who think no regulations are necessary since the market speaks ex cathedra, cannot fail and will solve every probem

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