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Fear the Airpocalypse
China Struggling to Enforce Clean Skies Policies

China’s air pollution problem is legendarily bad. Its toxic smog contributed to the deaths of 1.2 million people in 2010, and racked up a bill equivalent to roughly 6 percent of the country’s GDP in the form of premature deaths, material damage, and health care costs. In recent years, a restive Chinese public has pressured Beijing to do something about its deadly skies, but as Reuters reports, that directive from on high isn’t by itself enough to solve the problem:

[I]nvestigations over the past week revealed that a number of enterprises were failing to comply with emergency [air quality] measures, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a notice on Thursday. The ministry said 11 enterprises in Hebei and nine in neighboring Shandong province were found to have exceeded emission limits during a recent period of heavy smog from Sunday to Wednesday. […]

The smog covered an area of 260,000 square kilometers, including the cities of Beijing, Tangshan and Baoding, and was the result of “unfavorable weather”, the ministry said. It said it would continue to name and shame those guilty of illegal behavior and would also impose tougher punishments.

The environment ministry has long struggled to impose its will on polluting enterprises and the local governments that protect them. But since the country launched a “war on pollution” in 2014, the ministry has been granted more powers to monitor and punish offenders. This year, it was also given special powers to send out investigation teams.

This is one of China’s top priorities, and for good reason: a recent study estimated that air pollution costs the global economy more than $5 trillion—yes, that’s trillion, with a t—every year. But Beijing has long struggled with tensions between its central authority and its provincial and local governments, and that struggle is being played out again, this time with billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of lives at stake.

Good governance doesn’t end with the creation of smart policies, it also requires the judicious enforcement of them. “Naming and shaming” isn’t a strong deterrent (just ask followers of the Global Climate Treaty), and it’s certainly not up to the task of combatting unscrupulous companies looking to boost production at any cost. If it wants to see consistently blue skies again, Beijing is going to have to take a stronger stand.

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