Beijing last week took measures to curb a dense shroud of pollution that had settled on the city ahead of an APEC meeting, including limiting the number of cars on the roads and sending public employees home for a six-day holiday. Whether these would have had any real effect is difficult to know thanks to a strong wind that blew in Saturday night, sweeping the haze away. And while some measures were announced in surrounding regions to combat the smog, the thrust of the move remained local to the capital.
This approach ignores the regional roots and scope of China’s chronic air pollution. Officials have declared a “war on pollution” before, but based on the haze that regularly descends on the capital, the war is missing its targets, at least as far as those actually living amid the pollution are concerned. The current piecemeal approach to the problem appears to be insufficient to put a stop to recurrent “airpocalypses”.
China has launched effective anti-pollution drives before: Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing and much of northeastern China saw unprecedented measures to curb air pollution, with a large number of factories and power plants in and around the city being shut down for the duration of the Games. The government ordered work stoppages at construction sites, chemical plants, cement manufacturers and mines in the month before the opening ceremony, and ultimately spent US$17.3 billion to improve air quality for the big event. But the haze still persisted and authorities banned high-polluting vehicles from entering the city center, and imposed alternate-day bans on cars with even, then odd-numbered license plates.
In 2008, the drive also extended to Inner Mongolia, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong. That was a key measure, according to a report from Time, because research had shown that even if Beijing could eliminate all locally-produced pollution, that produced in the surrounding environs could still push particulate levels to dangerous highs. The result wasn’t limited to just an increase in blue sky days: a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that the measures put in place during the Games, if continued, would cut the lifetime risk of lung cancer from certain inhaled pollutants in half. A study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US found the measures had also yielded a large cut in CO2, in the amount of tens of thousands of tons per day — a reduction the authors deemed potentially significant on a global scale in combating climate change.
But Hung Wing Tat, an associate professor of environmental and civil engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that the 2008 measures were “basically impossible” to repeat now. “You can’t close down all the factories,” Hung said, adding that other measures adopted before the Olympics, like burning gas instead of coal, had also fallen by the wayside after the Games concluded. That made levels of pollution like those seen in Beijing earlier this month unavoidable, he said.
Measures taken at the regional level have indeed been ineffective, and the Ministry of Environment this week criticized administrators in Hubei province for their lackluster enforcement of measures after smog reached emergency levels. Under such a worst-case scenario, there are contingency measures in place to ensure that sensitive groups in Beijing, such as children, aren’t exposed unnecessarily to high levels of pollution. When the municipal government forecasts three consecutive days of severe air pollution it is supposed to activate a red warning, canceling classes for children from kindergarten to high school levels. That didn’t happen this month – nor has it ever, which suggests flaws in the current prediction process.
Regulators lack tools to enforce compliance, but a growing number of tools capable of forecasting haze and pinpointing polluters are publicly available in China. Municipal readings in China often report lower levels than those released by embassies and consulates here, but a civilian effort known as the Short Horse Forecast is independently predicting levels for the next five days nationwide (full CER report here). Meanwhile, a new iPhone app allows users to pinpoint on a map some of the major polluters in a given region of China, clearing up some of the mystery as to who is responsible for at least part of the pollution.
Rigorous enforcement of the rules on the books to prevent groups most sensitive to pollution from being exposed makes sense from an economic perspective: The health care cost of treating future lung cancer cases could be slashed considerably. Until such large-scale health problems begin to manifest, the scope of official response in China’s north may remain myopically focused on the local even as the whole region suffers. ♦
Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)