Cross-region campaigns to combat smog, such as that launched between Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province, are choking on regional protectionism
From the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, stretching south across Beijing and Tianjin, all the way to the Yangtze River Delta and the cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou, much of eastern China has been plagued by a pollution cloud, colloquially dubbed the “airpocalypse,” since September.
Even Hainan, a tropical island province on the south coast known for its fresh, clean air, couldn’t escape it – in early December, local media reported that the province was suffering from a smog cloud originating in another part of the country. Many in Sanya, Hainan’s most popular beach resort city, donned anti-pollution masks.
According to the China Meteorological Administration, in 2013 China’s cities saw more smog than ever before, with the average city seeing nearly 30 polluted days, and the “neighborhood” of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province racking up over 100. “Smog has become a climatic feature of north and east China throughout the year…and [the clouds] have been expanding across individual cities to vaster neighboring regions,” warned a 2013 report on China’s air pollution jointly issued by the China Meteorological Administration and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Despite moving a large proportion of its heavy polluting plants out of the city, the capital Beijing was racked with heavy smog for more than half of both September and October. According to experts, more than 25 percent of this was caused by fuel emissions from neighboring regions, particularly Hebei Province, which is responsible for half of the country’s coal consumption due to its booming heavy industry sector.
“No individual city can now isolate itself from air pollution, as it tends to spread across regions,” said China’s environment minister Zhou Shengxian at an anti-smog conference held in Beijing on October 23, where the six municipalities and provinces most heavily affected by smog gathered to decide how to join forces and fight the problem.
Yet, despite local governments’ eagerness to launch new policies in the wake of the conference, variously pledging to close down plants, use more clean energy, reduce automobile use and so on, experts remain doubtful that the measures can overcome differing regional interests.
“By 2017, the ‘neighborhood’ of Beijing, Tianjin [both municipalities] and Hebei Province should reduce its level of PM2.5 [airborne particulate matter no larger than 2.5 microns in diameter] by 25 percent,” reads the Air Pollution Control Plan launched by China’s State Council on September 12.
“It really is a hard nut to crack,” said Luo Jianhua, the general secretary of China Environment Service Industry Association. “By comparison, the US reduced its PM2.5 levels by 28 percent over 10 years, from 2000 to 2010.”
In order to fulfill this commitment, Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei issued a new implementation rule on joint smog control on October 23, pledging to reduce coal consumption, a major cause of China’s worsening pollution problem, by a total of 83 million tons, with half of the burden falling on Hebei Province. The province is also required to abandon 60 million tons of steel capacity (a major source of coal consumption), nearly 30 percent of Hebei’s total in 2012.
“I am dubious about how scientific the method was for defining these targets,” Luo Jianhua told NewsChina. “In my eyes, China’s heavy industries, including steel and cement production, have not yet reached their peak. I doubt that these industrial regions can reduce emissions while production is still growing,” he continued.
The Air Pollution Control Plan was the result of tough negotiations, according to Jiang Kejuan, a pollution researcher from the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, who had a role in the plan’s design. He told our reporter that the central government had initially proposed even higher requirements, which all of the regions involved were reluctant to accept.
“It has come to a crucial point, where we have to make environmental protection a crucial index,” Jiang said. “For Hebei Province, this means they will have to slash coal consumption through industrial upgrading and transition,” he added.
The central government’s determination is a hammer blow to Hebei Province, which is packed with nearly 300 registered steel furnaces, around half of China’s total, as well as a great many unlicensed ones. According to the Hebei Metallurgical Industry Association, Hebei Province produced around 210 million tons of steel in 2012, 22 percent of the country’s total. For every ton of steel, it emitted two kilograms of pollution made of sulfur dioxide and dust, nearly four times the average emissions of developed countries.
Worse, according to Xiong Yuehui, technological director at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, more than 70 percent of the steel plants in Hebei are not up to emissions standards. Thanks to uncontrolled pollution, Hebei, according to the ministry, is home to seven of the 10 cities with the worst air quality in the third quarter of 2013.
“The ‘super-smog’ is rooted in China’s heavy reliance on coal and dense distribution of heavy industry. Hebei has now been pushed into a choice between GDP growth and environmental protection,” Yang Xiaodong, a steel industry expert from the Technical Center for Cleaner Production of the Metallurgical Industry, told NewsChina.
“The upgrading of the pollution-control system may relieve pollution, but it is not a fundamental solution, since the resulting reduction in emissions cannot counter the growth in production,” he added.
For several years, Hebei Province has been attempting to cut steel capacity to combat overcapacity and environmental damage, yet numbers of steel furnaces have continued to rise, with total production growing every year.
“Many small and medium-sized steel plants tried to avoid being eliminated by adding more high-capacity furnaces, believing that larger scale would guarantee survival,” analyst Zeng Jiesheng from mysteel.com, China’s largest steel industry information website, told China Enterprise News.
Such problems may also exist in smog control. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the Hebei government plans to reduce the number of steel plants by about 40 percent in the next four years, potentially resulting in more than 400,000 layoffs. While the remaining plants may choose to upgrade their emissions systems, they will see shrinking profits due to rising costs.
“The key of control lies in the government planning, such as defining the weakest areas of capacity, detailing how to reduce [overall] capacity, and arranging an alternative way out for redundant enterprises and workers,” said Yang Xiaodong.
On October 14, the Ministry of Finance announced that it plans to allocate a total of five billion yuan (US$800m) to Beijing, Tianjin and another four heavily polluted provinces to be spent on smog control, a large proportion of which will go to Hebei Province.
According to the Ministry, funds will be given as a financial incentive to promote smog control, while experts have estimated that the total amount for anti-smog efforts over the period from 2014 to 2017 will reach 1.7 trillion yuan (US$270bn).
So far, only the Beijing government has made a public declaration about the figures behind its anti-smog efforts, announcing that it would input 20-30 million yuan (US$3.2-4.8m) to reduce air pollution. Its partners Tianjin and Hebei have been keeping silent about their budget.
Many experts are worried that some developing cities are unwilling or unable to afford the huge input, given that developing cities tend to value economic growth over conservation.
In fact, China’s previous joint campaigns against pollution were generally temporary efforts designed to clean up in a hurry ahead of one-off events, such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing or the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, with all the measures abandoned thereafter.
These failures can be attributed to differing regional interests, according to Zhang Quanzhi, director of the environmental protection bureau of Shanghai. “Cooperation easily collapses when there is conflict between the respective benefits of separate regions,” Zhang told China Environment News in 2012.
Such differences are particularly prominent between the capital and its neighbors. Hebei Province, especially its counties and cities that border on Beijing, has significantly hampered Beijing’s environment improvement efforts over recent decades, resulting in worsening ties with the capital.
According to a 2011 analysis report on the regional integration of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei by Li Lan, a chief researcher with the Macroeconomic Research Center at the Hebei provincial branch of the National Development and Reform Commission, Chicheng County in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, for example, had dropped over 70 investment programs and shut down nearly 60 plants in order to protect Beijing from what it called “sandstorms,” a term often used as a euphemism for heavy pollution. For the same reason, Fengning County in Chengde City had abandoned nearly 400,000 livestock to protect local grasslands, leading local farmers to lose 400 million yuan (US$63.5m) in revenue per year. Both cities received very little compensation from the capital.
Statistics from the poverty-relief bureau of Hebei Province show that by the end of 2011, Beijing is surrounded by 25 national or provincial-level impoverished counties, whose average GDP is less than one-ninth of Beijing’s.
“The capital’s special economic and political status have elbowed its neighboring regions aside, making it hard for them to talk with Beijing on an equal footing,” Li Lan wrote in his analysis report.
Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have now issued an array of polices on cooperative smog control, including information sharing and joint pre-warning, emergency and clampdown systems. Crucially though, measures on economic cooperation remain blank.
“Air pollution control is a long-term task, which should be accompanied by a long-term compensation system covering various areas like ecology and industrial development, but we have received little response from Beijing [on this issue],” a government official from Chengde, a steel boomtown in Hebei Province, complained to China Stock Market News in October.
“Given that Hebei is not allowed to focus on the steel industry, Beijing needs to further consider how to help Hebei’s industrial transformation,” Luo Jianhua said. “The real key to joint control lies in economic assistance across the regions,” he added.
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