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The furnaces and cooling towers on Capital Steel Campus in west Beijing used to spew toxic smoke. Today they’re nothing more than quaint paraphernalia decorating an 860-hectare park, which has been transformed into a tourist attraction commemorating China’s economic miracle. Chic cafes and bookshops sit among defunct tubes and ladders — the sanitized industrial vibe makes them a popular backdrop for selfies.

Capital Steel, also known as Shougang, began relocating its operations from the campus to neighboring Hebei province in 2005, when the government was moving dozens of polluting factories out of Beijing to ensure blue skies for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Capital Steel alone got rid of 18,000 tons of air pollutants a year, about 20% of the dangerous particles that gave the city some of the worst air quality in the world.

Tangshan, the Hebei city that became Capital Steel’s new home, got an influx of jobs and is today the largest steelmaking hub in the world. It also inherited Beijing’s air pollution. While the capital is no longer among China’s 20-most polluted cities, Tangshan makes the list every year.

“It’s taken for granted that every city should sacrifice for Beijing, China’s political and cultural center,” said Cui Yong, a 43-year-old Tangshan resident. “Equality in environment is probably the last thing people care about after many inequalities out there, from job opportunities to education to health care.”

Moving dirty operations out of rich cities to underdeveloped areas has long been a convenient way for China to keep affluent urban populations happy while boosting growth in poorer areas. It also mirrors how China itself developed on the global stage in the 1990s, bringing in industries that were too dirty or low-paying for richer countries in order to fast track its belated industrial revolution.

But now President Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire country by 2060 means every province has to find a way to cut pollution. It also means officials are having to consider regional equality in environmental policies for the first time.

For decades, coal-rich provinces exported power to fuel the meteoric rise of cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, while keeping the filthy air for themselves — with deadly consequences. According to research by The Fourth Hospital of Hebei Medical University, Hebei’s morality rate from lung cancer tripled from the 1970s to 2013. It was also higher than the national average during the period.

Cui’s father died 20 years ago from lung cancer, and his mother was diagnosed with the same disease this year. Cui blames the cement factory located a few hundred meters from his home. “We used to think dirty air is just the price we have to pay for making more money,” he said. “If you are not born in Beijing, you are not qualified to ask for more.”

The decommissioned Guofeng Iron and Steel plant in Tangshan, China, in 2018. | REUTERS
The decommissioned Guofeng Iron and Steel plant in Tangshan, China, in 2018. | REUTERS

As top officials work out how to deliver on Xi’s carbon-neutrality target, a key question is what deadlines they will set for different regions to reach peak emissions. It’s an easy task for cities like Beijing, where the majority of revenue comes from services and high-tech industries. The capital reached peak emissions in 2012 and plans to be net zero by mid-century. But poorer provinces dependent on coal-powered industries such as chemicals and cement production will have to undergo painful transitions.

It’s a microcosm of a debate China is having on a global stage as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Signatories agreed that countries such as the U.S. and U.K., which became rich thanks to decades of spewing smoke into the skies, should do more than countries that are still developing now, a list that includes China.

The 2060 goal is, in a way, “China’s domestic version of the Paris Agreement,” said Qin Yan, an analyst at Refinitiv. “China should apply a similar principle it holds in international climate works, to allow regions to have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities,’” she said. “Cities like Beijing should set carbon-neutrality deadlines earlier to buy time for others.”

Some provinces have already voiced concerns about ensuring a just transition.

Inner Mongolia produced a quarter of China’s coal over the past five years and is the country’s biggest power generator. Its officials argue that the region’s high emissions are inevitable given its role in driving China’s economic engine. Its top economic planner has proposed that provinces shouldn’t be responsible for emissions from projects approved by the central government and products made for export to other parts of China.

“Who will make up for the loss of the poor regions where resources are mined out and burned, where the environment is damaged, where people have to abandon their industries?” said Wang Xiaojun, founder of environmental nonprofit People of Asia for Climate Solutions. “Cities that have long benefited from others’ sacrifices should do more, and faster.”

With China running out of places within its borders to move polluting industries, the future is moving down two diverging paths.

On one, the cycle of dirty factories moving from rich areas to poor continues, just across international borders. Chinese companies have already moved inefficient coal power plants and steel blast furnaces to poorer countries such as Cambodia, while some of the investments in the Belt and Road initiative allow China to share in the profits of heavy industry while leaving the pollution overseas.

At the same time, firms are experimenting with ways to make domestic factories cleaner. While Inner Mongolia’s economy will be dependent on coal for years, leaders are already trying to plan a future that would use its ample wind and sun resources to make it a hub for exporting green hydrogen to other provinces. And major steelmakers have announced plans for major green hydrogen projects that would help replace coal.

How successful they are will ultimately determine the legacy of Capital Steel Campus: whether it becomes a beacon for poorer provinces to aspire to, or a cruel reminder of what they’ll never achieve.

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