Seeking Solace from ‘Crazy Bad’ Air in Beijing

The announcement Monday by Beijing that the country would allocate RMB 760 billion (US$125.6 billion) over the next four years to clean up the befogged atmosphere over Northern China is an indication that officials in Zhongnanhai have finally begun to comprehend the scope and harm that air pollution is causing China.

There is no denying it is bad, and Chinese authorities appear to have finally begun to stop the disavowals. The US Embassy on Monday began sending out online warnings that fine particulate matter had again gone above 500 micrograms per million, the upper limit of the measurement scale. The embassy last January recorded a reading of 886 micrograms per million against World Health Organization guidelines that say levels of tiny particulates capable of finding their way into lungs shouldn’t exceed 25. At one point a US Embassy officials sent out a tweet that the air was “crazy bad,” earning a rebuke form the government and a demand to stop publicizing the measurements.

The state news agency Xinhua reported Monday that the government had ordered four major highways closed, including those from Beijing to Shanghai, Daqing to Guangzhou, Beijing to Harbin and Beijing to Pinggu, probably through Friday morning.

The new commitment marks a dramatic turnaround from the previous administration, when the government in Beijing insisted that the noxious air over the city was due to “fog” and to “the traditional way of cooking Chinese dishes” and other apparently harmless emissions. For decades, since China began its industrialization spree in the 1970s, belching smokestacks have been a symbol of progress, not poison.

The new attention to the cleanup effort stems partly from the fact that an estimated 50,000 demonstrations took place against environmental degradation in 2012, and probably the same number in 2013. China’s air, water and soil are so polluted that environmental degradation environment is taking a toll on gross domestic product growth and, with the ubiquity of social media, is becoming a political problem. But it also stems from what is a rejuvenated leadership, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang clearly aware of the multiplicity of issues facing the country and the need to move fast. Officials said that in 2013 several areas had recorded their highest pollution levels since the 1960s.

That RMB760 billion represents a fraction of what the total cost of cleaning the air will be. Wang Jinnan, the deputy head of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, in September estimated the cost to the economy of air pollution over that period at RMB1.75 trillion and, according to the official news agency Xinhua, said the total cleanup cost would approach RMB 2 trillion.

The money is to be spread over six provinces and areas including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Shandong. Nearly 40 percent is to go to clean up industry, with another 28 percent to be spent cleaning up energy sources. China depends for 80 percent of is energy on coal although that is beginning to change.

The country is rapidly becoming the world’s biggest user of solar power, planning to add 10 gigawatts of solar capacity annually through 2015 to total 35 GW, more than Germany, the current biggest solar producer, had installed at the end of 2012. Domestic manufacturers are bringing down production and research costs and working to raise per-unit capacity.

According to the China Business Review, the Ministry of Finance said the main focus of the fund is to be directed towards solving problems in Hebei, followed by Tianjin, with Beijing to be given approximately RMB900 million

Last September, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced a “Plan of Action for the Prevention of Air Pollution” aiming at a reduction of fine particulate levels for Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta by 25 percent,, 20 percent and 15 percent respectively. Hebei appears to be the main area of concern because weather patterns move it to other areas, particularly affecting Beijing.