Drastic change needed to tackle China’s smog



China has cleaned up its air before, but experts say that if it wants to avoid the kind of smog that choked the country this week, it must overhaul an economy fueled by heavily polluting coal and car use.

Several days of hazardous air quality across large swaths of northern China triggered an emergency response that saw schoolchildren kept indoors, factories closed and government cars parked.

Experts are urging authorities to take firmer action to confront the consequences of China’s rapid industrialization — and the spending habits of the middle classes created by its economic boom. The calls for cleaner air come after new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping said the government would strive to meet demands for “more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment.”

China began releasing pollution data last year, a move observers say triggered a huge backlash against the smog — both from a newly aware public who took to Internet message boards in droves and from normally partisan state media outlets.

As the noxious haze blanketed Beijing this week, driving sales of face masks and air purifiers through the roof, state-run news agency Xinhua said the party’s promise to beautify China was “in jeopardy.”

When the eyes of the world were on Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, the city implemented strict measures for more than two months that reduced toxic emissions by 60 percent. Car users could only drive every other day, construction work ceased and factories were shut down.

Such steps were “extreme resolutions which are not sustainable,” said professor John Cai, director of the Center for Healthcare Management and Policy at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School.

“What needs to happen is for the government to take long-term action by centralizing the heating systems so that individual families in rural areas do not burn coal, and also by cutting down on car use in the city,” he said.

China would face “short-term economic losses” from such sweeping changes, Cai said, but the government should look to the long term.

Growing car use has been both an important driver of China’s economy and an overt symbol of its mounting wealth. But with 5 million vehicles already clogging Beijing’s streets and 20,000 more added each month, Cai said addressing this issue is essential, suggesting owners be forced to pay high licence fees on each vehicle to reduce emissions.

Tackling coal use is even more problematic. While families might be encouraged onto central heating systems, 79 percent of China’s electricity is generated by the fuel, according to the World Coal Association. Much of that is the low-grade “dirty” kind rather than the “clean” coal now favored in many Western markets.

“Beijing has taken emergency measures to tackle the current pollution, but in the long term we need a regionwide policy to cut coal use to make the air quality better,” said Zhou Rong, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace.

Beijing said in May that it would get rid of 1,200 high-polluting businesses by 2015. It has also set up bicycle rental kiosks to try to ease congestion. But implementing strict lasting controls requires firm political will from China’s new leaders, Cai said.

Given Xi’s professed support for an environmental cleanup, Cai anticipates “substantial, radical changes” within two years.

Premier-designate Li Keqiang noted Tuesday the need for at least some signs of progress, with China National Radio quoting him as saying, “Solving the problem will also be a long-term process, but we must see some achievements.” Li said tackling the issue requires greater enforcement of environmental protections as well as increased public awareness.

Many ordinary people, however, do not seem optimistic.

“Air pollution is an emergency as severe as an earthquake, flood or chemical spill,” said one Weibo user. “The government needs to mobilize all of society to solve this problem — not just its environmental protection department.”