Focus on local air quality in Chinese cities but what are the authorities doing?

Beijing this past weekend as it suffers smog

Beijing this past weekend as it suffers smog

Over the weekend many parts of northern China experienced serous air pollution. PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometer in diameter) data in Beijing reached 470 to 490 on Saturday morning, which according to the Air Quality Index is the most polluted air quality. And heavy fog will continue to envelop a large swathe of East and Central China in several days.

China has made progress in combating environmental pollution, but apparently it still has a lot to do to improve its overall air quality.

The Better Air Quality 2012 conference, organized by Clean Air Asia in Hong Kong recently, was hopeful about the effectiveness of mitigating measures rather than people adapting to poor air quality. Soon after the conference, the Chinese government announced new air pollution reduction plan, which is aimed at cutting gas emissions and pollutants and reflects a change in emphasis.

China will cut the PM2.5 intensity by at least 5 percent by 2015 in 13 major areas covering 117 cities, according to a plan issued by the Ministry of Environment Protection. The levels of other pollutants such as PM10 and SO2 (sulfur dioxide) will be reduced by 10 percent while that of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) will be cut by 7 percent.

China has also vowed to release hourly air pollution data for 74 of its biggest cities from Jan 1 in response to the increasing environmental concern among its citizens. Of late, an increasing number of Chinese people have been complaining against pollution and murky gray skies in cities.

The monitoring will include not only PM2.5, but also SO2, NO2, ozone and carbon monoxide, and data will be collected from 496 monitoring stations.

Microscopic pollutant particles in the air caused the premature death of an estimated 8,600 people in 2012 and an economic loss of about $1 billion in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an, according to a study by Peking University which measured pollutant levels of PM2.5.

Urban residents have become more aware of the benefits of air quality data, which has prompted the Chinese authorities to issue hourly data on air pollution.

Many Chinese cities have removed smoke belching chimneys and coal-burning factories in recent years, but the increase in the number of cars has created new air quality problems. In this respect, electric vehicles (EVs) with their zero-tailpipe emission were seen as the panacea, offering much hope. But the slow progress in EVs’ development and affordability seems to have dashed that hope.

Let us look at the somewhat different experiences of London and Hong Kong. The London mayor, in his previous term, had hoped to put 100,000 electric vehicles on the road and to install 25,000 plug-in-points in the city. He even hoped that 1,000 of the Great London Assembly vehicles would be run on electricity. But only 1,500 electric vehicles have hit the roads, 900 plug-in-points have been set up and just 50-odd GLA vehicles are running on electricity.

Most of the 3,000 EVs in the United Kingdom are part of companies’ fleets and this trend is likely to continue in the immediate future. Though the UK’s network of charging points continues to expand – 400 more points are likely to be added in London – the price of new electric cars remains high despite the government’s 5,000 pounds subsidy for each vehicle.

But Hong Kong informed the BAQ2012 that many manufacturers had conducted EV trials, 373 EVs from different makers had been registered and more than 1,000 standard charging points set up, 500 of which were in government car parks. So it appears that with the concerted efforts of the government, power companies, property developers and car park operators, the EV charging infrastructure in Hong Kong is expanding progressively. That’s a positive sign.

On the Chinese mainland, the combined efforts of the government and the private sector are helping drive the global growth in environmental certification. Almost 82,000 Chinese companies have qualified for ISO14001, of which more than 12,200 did so in 2011 alone.

This is the highest growth rate in the world and can attribute to Chinese companies’ realization that the standard can help them reduce their environmental impact, as well as maintain their competitive advantage, cut costs, enhance their reputation and win new business.

In these times of global economic uncertainty, the continued increase in the number of Chinese companies with environmental certification proves that investing in environmental measures will help build a sustainable economic future.

So while critical global environmental issues like climate change have been effectively put on hold because UN member countries have not agreed on a treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, attention has been diverted to more localized global environmental concerns like poor air quality in cities. This development can only improve urban residents’ life in countries like China.

This blog was published as a guest column in the China Daily on the 14th of January 2013.