BEIJING — China’s Communist state is hardly known for its transparency. So when environmental groups appealed to the government last year to disclose official data on air pollution, they were not expecting much.
“Way beyond our expectations, the government actually said yes,” said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. “I am quite amazed.”
Since Jan. 1, the central government has required 15,000 factories — including influential state-run enterprises — to publicly report details on their air emissions and water discharges in real time, an unprecedented degree of disclosure that is shedding light on the who, what, when and where of China’s devastating environmental problems.
The reporting requirement is part of a striking turnaround by China’s government, which is also publishing data on the sootiest cities and trying to limit the use of coal. The country’s appalling air is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year, for producing acid rain that damages the nation’s agriculture, for driving away tourists and even for encouraging the brightest students to study abroad. Perhaps just as important, Beijing’s bad air has been making its Communist leaders lose face.
Cleaning up China’s bad air will take years, even in the best of circumstances. The economy is dependent on coal, and there are many powerful interests involved. But activists say the new steps could at least represent the beginning of change.
Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington says the reporting requirement for factories is the “biggest thing” China has done to address its pollution problems, and the most likely to produce results.
“It brings them from the back of the pack globally, in terms of public information disclosure, to the front of the pack,” Greer added by telephone. “Inevitably it will strengthen the hand of regulators when they have bad air pollution days, to look at real-time data.”
The seeds of the new transparency were sown by the U.S. Embassy when it began monitoring and publishing data on the fine particles in Beijing’s air that cause the most harm to human health — those that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Today, the air-quality readings by the U.S. Embassy and consulates around the country are a major topic on China’s microblogs and are widely watched through a smartphone app.
The Chinese government initially pushed back against such disclosure, requesting in 2009 that the United States stop making public the data.
But in 2012, Chinese authorities ordered cities to publish their own data on PM2.5 pollution levels; today, 179 cities issue real-time figures, while the Ministry of Environmental Protection has begun ranking the worst offenders. Those rankings have been dynamite.
Everyone knew that heavy industry around Beijing was responsible for much of the capital’s bad air, but few people fully appreciated the scale of the problem. The ministry’s rankings showed that seven of the 10 most polluted cities in China in 2013 were in Hebei province, which surrounds the capital and is the center of the nation’s steel industry, as well as being a major glass, coke and cement producer.
The data made one conclusion inescapable: Beijing’s pollution would never be tackled unless Hebei’s heavy industry was either cleaned up or shut down.
The data disclosure was part of a new resolve in China’s government to confront its environmental problems, which have increasingly been the subject of protests.
In September, the Chinese government unveiled a $280 billion plan to improve air quality, including limiting coal use and banning high-polluting vehicles. Under the plan, the Beijing-Tianjan-Hebei area is required to cut concentrations of PM2.5 fine particles by 25 percent by 2017.
Of course, China has set and missed environmental targets before. And a real cleanup would involve significant social and economic costs, especially for Hebei. In 2012, the province produced more crude steel than the entire European Union and twice as much as the United States, according to the economics research firm Dragonomics. Its steel plants are not only massive polluters, but also massive tax and employment generators. No one in government wants a sea of unemployed factory workers at Beijing’s doorstep.
Nevertheless, as part of a plan to cut overcapacity in heavy industry and limit pollution, China declared in October that it would reduce steel production by 10 percent, or 80 million tons, by 2017, with the bulk of the adjustment forced on Hebei.
At provincial party congress meetings in January, cleaning up the nation’s air seemed to garner as much attention as preserving its economic growth. Beijing’s mayor promised to cut coal use as part of an “all-out effort” to curb air pollution, while Hebei’s governor threatened to sack party secretaries and industry managers if production of steel, glass and cement was even one ton above target.
But it is the focus on individual factories that really gives environmentalists such as Ma reason for optimism. Although several provinces have yet to comply with the government’s edict to publish data, figures from Hebei are available and show factories brazenly flaunting limits on emissions.
Ma is working with experts to design a phone app that could vividly expose the offenders, with factories meeting emissions targets showing up as blue and those breaking the law coded red.
“What we aim to do, through public pressure, is help the environment protection bureau to enforce the law,” he said.
In the United States, the Toxics Release Inventory, created in 1986, was one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s most successful programs, Greer said. China’s real-time disclosure program is bigger than anything the EPA has done, she said.
On a recent day in Hebei, a thick carpet of gray smog blanketed the province and the smell of sulphur hung in the air. Near one factory outside the city of Tangshan, a worker on a bicycle angrily confronted journalists trying to photograph smoke and steam billowing into the air.
“Recently journalists have been complaining about pollution, and all the factory owners have come under pressure,” he said. “We are very afraid they will lay us off. Each worker has a family to raise. We have no land, or other industry. Everything we have depends on steel factories.”
But in the village of Wushizhuang, near the Zhengda steel works, locals were as angry as anyone about the pollution that was harming their lungs and ruining their crops — even though many had relatives employed in the surrounding factories.
One man said the apples and pears in his orchard grew so black with grime that they could never be sold, while another wiped thick black dust off a car that he said had been washed the day before.
Transparency obviously still has its limits in China — the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the provincial government in Hebei declined requests for an interview. But the new information may drive action.
Greer said that officials could focus on forcing factories that were egregiously violating pollution limits to use control devices.
“Making them run their pollution control devices is a lot easier than closing them down,” she said. “First, I would see what happens if they all ran those devices. We might see a meaningful reduction.”
Rongkun Zhao contributed to this report.