Can China clean up its pollution before it’s too late?


A girl reads a book on her balcony as smoke rises from chimneys of a steel plant in Zhejiang province, China, on April 3, 2014. (Reuters)

Just how bad is smog in China?

It’s so bad that in Zhejiang province last year a fire burned for three hours at a factory before locals noticed anything was amiss. It’s so bad that visibility in Harbin dropped to 10 meters last October, shuttering schools and the airport. It’s so bad that bags of mountain air were shipped into Zhengzhou last March, and contented-looking locals breathed deep like Mel Brooks in “Spaceballs.” So bad that a glass jar of French air sold for $860. So bad that cans of fresh air are going for 80 cents and the millionaire who manufactured them claims he’s sold eight million.

The smog is only the beginning. More than 20 percent of China’s farmland is polluted. You can’t drink 60 percent of its water supplies. In Northern China, air pollution can shorten lifespan by nearly six years. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealthy are thinking of leaving the country. Beijing’s concentration of  PM2.5 — particles small enough to infect both the bloodstream and penetrate the lungs — hit a staggering 505 micrograms per cubic meter earlier this year. The World Health Organization’s recommended level: 25.

China is killing itself. And it knows it. The question is now, as the Earth continues its inexorable climate change, whether the nation can save itself before fostering broader environmental pollution locally and internationally. To meet that challenge, lawmakers recently announced a surge of new measures and ideas that signal a profound change in their thinking on pollution, which until now has been treated as an unfortunate but necessary cost of development.


A smoggy day in Jilin, China. (Reuters)

It began earlier this spring. Calling pollution “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development,” Premier Li Keqiang “resolutely declared war on pollution.”

Weeks later, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced its first major alterations to environmental protection law in 25 years. The effect of the changes could be huge. The Congress will set fines to hammer offenders until they mend their ways. It will implement a new method to grade officials that values environmental protection as much as economic productivity. And it will allow nongovernmental actors to sue polluters to protect the public.

According to the state-run news service Xinhua, “local officials may be demoted or sacked if they are guilty of misconduct … if offenders’ behaviors constitute crimes, they will be held criminally responsible.”

New environmental changes could mean a new China, analysts say. “I know from experience the power of these tools to bring violators into compliance,” wrote Barbara Finamore, the Asia director of the Natural Resource Defense Council. “Once these new amendments come into effect, China will finally have a fighting chance in its war on pollution.”

Within weeks, the government was making more moves, displaying a governmental nimbleness democracies can only dream of.

It published a new policy document last week announcing plans to remove more than 6 million cars from the road — more cars than there are in all of Switzerland — in an effort to improve air quality. “Many vehicles have problems and many didn’t even meet the standards when they came out of the factory,” Li Kunsheng, a Beijing environmental official, told Reuters. “Fining them on the streets isn’t the way to solve this problem.”

Then on Tuesday, a top government adviser said China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas producer, will limit its emissions for the first time in a decade. “The Chinese announcement marks potentially the most important turning point in the global scene on climate change for a decade,” Michael Grubb, a professor of international energy and climate policy at University College London, told Reuters.

But will the changes be enough? Will the policy shift do anything to stop the smog? Who knows. It’s one thing to pass new legislation; it’s another thing to enforce it.

Some analysts, however, found reason to rejoice. “It could be a game changer,”  said Connie Hedegaard, a spokesman for EU Climate Action Commissioner.

Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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