In the Year of the Snake,Chinese cities need the year of clear air

In the year of the snake, China also needs the year of clean air. At the beginning of the calendar year many parts of northern China experienced serious air pollution.

For example, in Beijing, according to the Air Quality Index, particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometer in diameter (PM2.5) reached the most polluted level readings between 470 to 490.

This was a result of a combination of heavy fog and pollution enveloping large swathes of East and Central China for several days. It is a stark reminder of the high cost of rapid development.

This is happening at the same time as we witness one of the biggest migrations in human history as Chinese people increasingly move from their rural homes to urban areas. It is estimated another 300 million will migrate into Chinese cities and towns by 2030.

By then, its cities will be home to up to 70 per cent of the Chinese population. A billion humans already reside in the urban centres of China and one in eight humans worldwide inhabit Chinese cities, so, if the problem is not addressed now, then it’s set to get worse for many more people.

Having been a regular visitor to Chinese cities since the Beijing Olympics, most recently last December to Hong Kong for the Better Air Quality 2012 conference, it is interesting for me to note how cities are coping.

During the Olympics, Beijing took a number of measures including reducing traffic flows and moving industry out of the centre to reduce the affect of air pollution on the athletes. This is a legacy that has survived to the present day.

More recently, Hong Kong is dealing with a particular source of its air pollution from ships berthing in its docks as it proposes a Delta-wide scheme covering marine emissions. While on land, it is encouraging the adoption of electric cars in the city with plug points and suitable parking.

So what other mitigating measures are being taken?

On the national level, the Chinese government announced a new air pollution reduction plan, aimed at cutting gas emissions and pollutants. The aim is to cut the PM2.5 intensity by at least 5 per cent by 2015 in 13 major areas covering 117 cities.

The levels of other pollutants like PM10 and SO2 will be reduced by 10 per cent and NO2 by 7 per cent.

Improved public information appears to be another angle pursued as China has vowed to release hourly air pollution data for 74 of its largest cities in response to the increasing environmental concerns among its citizens.

Increasing numbers of Chinese people have complained about the problem of pollution and the murky grey skies that overshadow their cities.

Popular discontent is clearly a powerful driver of environment policies.

As for business, the Chinese private sector is helping to drive the global growth of environment certification, as almost 82,000 Chinese companies have qualified for environment standard ISO14001, of which more then 12,200 did so in the last year alone.

This is the highest growth rate in the world and can be attributed to Chinese companies realising 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.

So China is finally addressing its pollution problem but is it going far enough?

Well, the year of the snake is meant to be one of steady progress and attention to detail. So my hope is that measures like the national action plan for reducing intensity of pollutants; better public information about the state of air quality; and Chinese businesses increasingly getting themselves environmentally certified will make for steady progress in improving air quality in China, and demonstrate that actual achievements can only result when policy makers look at the detail of what is actually happening.

So as we welcome in the year of the snake and as Chinese people return to their villages to celebrate and get some “respite” from the polluted air in the cities, 2013 also needs to be the year China tackles poor air quality.

The European Commission has made 2013 the Year of Air in Europe. Perhaps, something similar should also be done in China?

This article was published under Pollution Solution in the West End Extra pull-out for the Chinese New Year this week