China's Uphill Battle Against Pollution

Polluting companies around China might be forgiven for feeling under pressure. They have good reason to be, after China announced its latest measures to fight environmental damage. On Feb. 11, it emerged that in 2013 China’s environmental watchdog blocked 32 projects – the combined value of which amounted to RMB118.4 billion (US$19.5 billion) – on the grounds that they broke rules protecting the environment.

Zhai Qing, the vice-environment minister, portrayed a grim future for industrial polluters. “I think our ability to enforce and monitor is extremely important… and since last year, we have been constantly trying to strengthen our abilities,” he told the press.

The watchdog showed its teeth again two days later when it blacklisted China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the country’s biggest oil producer, because it didn’t comply with regulations at one of its refineries. It is the second time in six months that the company entered the list of environmental felons.

Alongside its increasingly uncompromising stick, Beijing also dangled a large carrot as it announced the creation of a RMB10 billion fund to fight air pollution. According to Premier Li Keqiang, the plan is to “use rewards to replace subsidies to fight air pollution in key areas.”

Battling pollution is certainly a priority for the development of China, as studies report staggering data about human and economic losses linked to the deterioration of the environment. In 2007, joint research by the World Bank and China’s Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) pointed out that the combined health and non-health cost of outdoor air and water pollution for China’s economy was about US$100 billion a year, which, at the time, was 5.8 percent of the country’s GDP. And that is besides the human suffering caused by diseases linked with the deteriorating environment.

The problem is also a political headache, as increasingly watchful citizens cry foul on the dangers posed by pollution. Only a few days before authorities announced their crackdown on polluters, people in Baha, a village in Yunnan province, took the matter in their own hands and attacked a polluting factory nearby, reportedly smashing offices and clashing with the police.

The growing presence of issues connected with pollution in policy debate is a clue that the government is more and more concerned about potential fallouts. The latest five year plan – approved in mid-March 2011 – dedicated much space to environmental challenges, promising a focus on “enhancing sustainably development capacity, further improve resource usage efficiency of energy, land, and sea, strengthen environmental pollution regulation, and resolve the bottleneck problem of resource and environment.”

Authorities are also trying to move aside the fig leaf behind which they have so far hid themselves and become more transparent. A report recently published by the Social Science Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences pointed out that, when it comes to the environment, Beijing is the second worst in a list of 40 cities around the world and warned that the air in the capital is “barely suitable” for life.

Even more importantly, in January this year the government implemented a new policy under which 15,000 firms will have to disclose the emissions of air pollutants to the public.

Despite the efforts, the picture is far from rosy and problems persist. The 2014 Environmental Performance Index, a research compiled by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, ranks China 118th in the world in terms of environmental performance – a sign that much remains to be done.

Taking into account that at the very best it will take a decade for emissions to peak and that growth-hungry local officials might turn a blind eye to restrictive central orders, all the signs are there that the road to clean up China’s cities is going to be long, winding, and very polluted.

(Michele Pena blogs for Asian Correspondent, in which this originally appeared.)