Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014, 8:19 PM CST – China

Editorial

Addressing air pollution needs a comprehensive approach

The root cause of air pollution is embedded within China’s growth model

In recent years, deteriorating air quality has become a major social problem in China as the public are becoming more and more aware of environmental issues, and look beyond monetary gains to measure their quality of life.

Realizing the severity of the problem, China’s new leadership raised the concept of establishing an “ecological civilization” in 2013. However, despite various measures taken by the new leadership, there is no sign that the air is getting cleaner.

As the winter set in last year, the air quality in many Chinese cities plummeted due to a combination of weather conditions and the widespread burning of coal for home and municipal heating systems, leading to a renewed public outcry over worsening air pollution.

In response, the authorities made new pledges to address the problem. In January, Beijing’s Mayor Wang Anshun said he would “put his head on a platter” if pollution did not improve by 2017. The Beijing municipal government pledges that it will spend 760 billion yuan (US$125bn) to clean up the capital’s air. Also in January, Zhang Qingwei, governor of Hebei Province, vowed to cap the production of polluting industries such as iron and steel, cement, and glass, as a measure to curb air pollution. “If the levels rise by one ton, the responsible officials will be removed,” said Zhang.

While these new political promises indicate strong political will to tackle the issue, they may not bring immediate results, as the root cause of air pollution is embedded within China’s growth model, which relies heavily on manufacturing, especially the polluting and energy-intensive heavy industries.

Within the government, achieving economic growth and increasing government revenue continues to outweigh environmental issues in the decision-making process. Now, as air pollution persists, it is beginning to take its toll on the economy. According to a report jointly made by China Merchants Bank (CMB) and Bain & Company, 74 percent of correspondents who have at least 10 million yuan (US$1.6m) in investable assets said they were either considering emigrating or had already emigrated from China, leading to a drain of China’s wealth. Poor air quality was identified as one of the most prominent reasons in their consideration.

Air pollution is also believed to one of the reasons behind the falling number of foreign visitors to China. According to data released by the Beijing Municipal Administration of Tourism, 4.2 million international tourists visited the city in the first 11 months of 2013, 16 percent fewer than the previous year. Moreover, concerns over air quality and other forms of pollution have also lead to a spate of protests across the county in recent years.

 In its latest effort to address the problem, the State Council held a meeting focusing on combating air pollution on February 12, at which Premier Li Keqiang outlined three approaches: transforming China’s energy structure, providing policy incentives including taxes and subsidies for use of clean energy, and holding officials more accountable. The meeting suggested that curbing air pollution has become a national priority of the central government. But to really deliver results, the government needs to adopt a more comprehensive approach, both in its economic and political policies.

Economically, the government needs to put a price on the environment so it can be integrated into economic decisions. Politically, it is necessary to allow the public into the decision making process and to push forward environmental legislation.

After the infamous Great Smog that struck London in 1952, Britain responded by passing the Clean Air acts of 1956 and of 1968, and the City of London Act of 1954 to restrict polluting energy resources. Even so, it took 10 years to alleviate London’s problem. Comparatively, the problem of air pollution in China is more severe in terms of its geographic scale and its multiple causes. To bring clear air back to China’s cities, the government must turn its political will into swift and persistent efforts.

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