China’s smog problem has been flaring up in an especially bad way recently. Air pollution in Beijing has hovered in hazardous levels for the past week. This is in part a seasonal phenomenon, as coal plants work overtime to heat Chinese homes during the winter, but that isn’t stopping the country’s leadership from taking the smog problem increasingly seriously, as the WSJ reports:
China’s National Meteorological Center said Tuesday it reaffirmed the region’s orange alert, its second-most-severe air-pollution warning after red under a system enacted in October amid rising public pressure on authorities to act on pollution. That alert level requires a halt to construction work and orders factories to temporarily reduce emissions by 30%. Fireworks and outdoor barbecuing are also banned. Children and the elderly are advised to stay indoors, and residents are encouraged to use public transportation instead of cars.
Earlier today, the country’s environment ministry promised to “harshly punish” the responsible emitters, but regulators are fighting an uphill battle. China’s energy infrastructure is already heavily dependent on coal; the country burns nearly half the world’s supply of the sooty rock, and replacing coal-fired plants will be slow and expensive. In the meantime, those citizens stuck inhaling the toxic air are becoming more restive, taking to social media to vent their frustration, or as Reuters reports, launching lawsuits against the government:
Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang, capital of the northern province of Hebei, submitted his complaint to a district court asking the city’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law”, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said.He is also seeking compensation from the agency for residents for the choking pollution that has engulfed Shijiazhuang, and much of northern China, this winter…”The reason that I’m proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we’re the real victims,” Li was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
To clear its skies, China needs to do three things. First, it must continue to pursue its shale gas resources. Though those sources have proven difficult to tap so far, they are the world’s largest. Second, it needs to invest in nuclear reactors, which can provide the kind of base-load power that coal plants do without the nasty emissions. Third, it needs to hasten the transition toward an information economy, by building up its infostructure, and by incentivizing best practices like telework.None of these will provide the kind of immediate changes that Chinese urbanites’ lungs demand, but long-term they’re the best hope for blue skies in Beijing.