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Beijing Aims to Tackle Smog through Regional Cooperation

12-20 15:47 Caijing
Air pollution control is a complex task which requires strong financial support and the cooperation of surrounding regions, as it is increasingly becoming a regional issue.

By staff reporters Zhang Lu, Gao Shengke, and He Tao

Residents of Beijing were fast asleep in the early morning hours of Dec. 4 when a current of warm air carrying high amounts of water vapor swept into the city. Prior to that, temperatures had been relatively low following the first snowfall of the season. The warm air caused vapor from the south to combine with dust in the atmosphere, condensing into fog.

Around 10 hours later on the afternoon of Dec. 4, heavy pollution had engulfed the entire city. The Beijing Meteorological Bureau issued a yellow fog warning at 4:30 p.m. that day, stating that visibility in urban areas had been reduced to below one kilometer, while visibility in the southern part of Beijing was less than 500 meters. The dense smog crippled transportation including flights, freeways, ports, and the public transportation system. It also caused a spike in the number of respiratory-related illnesses.

The recent smog was only one of a series of heavy pollution incidents that have attacked Beijing since October. Pollutants during days plagued by continuous haze mainly consist of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM10 and PM2.5 particulates. In early December, weather conditions in Beijing were too steady for pollutants to disperse, causing the density of particulate pollutants to increase.

These “chronic killers” hovering in the air we breathe are the products of human activity. In Beijing, the root cause of air pollution is increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, told Caijing, “Instead of solving the fundamental problems, all the measures we take can only postpone the exacerbation of pollution.”

In fact, since this autumn, dense smog has quietly engulfed many regions in China. In Beijing and Tianjin municipalities and in provinces such as Hebei, Liaoning, Henan, Shandong, Anhui, Jiangsu, Hubei and Hunan, there have been incidents of large-scale haze lasting for days on end. In certain counties and cities in Hebei and Liaoning Provinces, roadside visibility was reduced to less than 50 meters in extreme cases.

The waves of heavy pollution this autumn are nothing new to China. Particulate pollution has plagued the country for years. However, as the Ministry of Environmental Protection sought public comments for the second time on amending the Ambient Air Quality Standard, driven by the media and the Internet, a perfect storm was formed for a backlash in public opinion. As a result, the environmental protection authority once again came under attack for its poor performance on pollution control.

Still, air pollution control is a complex task which requires strong financial support and the cooperation of surrounding regions, as it is increasingly becoming a regional issue. Moreover, since air pollution control greatly impacts local economies, the environmental protection authority alone cannot perform this task. During the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Beijing successfully controlled its air quality by cooperating with five neighboring provinces and municipalities. For the environmental protection authority, this success demonstrates the possibility of exploring a long-term mechanism.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection issued Guidelines on Improving Air Quality through Promoting Regional Cooperation together with nine ministries including the National Development and Reform Commission in May 2010, stating for the first time that China will prevent and control air pollution in key areas through regional cooperation. Some local governments have drawn up their own 12th Five-year Plans on air pollution control in light of the guidelines.

However, Caijing observed that the plans have not been implemented at the grassroots level. The plans lack necessary capital, and more importantly, ways to consolidate regional cooperation. Zhang Lijun, vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, recently stated that during the 12th Five-Year Plan period, China will consider levying fees on dust pollution, vehicle emissions, and the discharge of volatile organic matter. It will also consider adjusting import and export tariff policies for heavy-polluting products with high risk to the environment.

A nationwide battle against air pollution is on the verge of breaking out, though it is still unknown as to whether it will obtain significant results like past efforts in London and California.

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