Stifling smog shows China's struggle to balance economic needs with public health

With 24 cities on 'red alert' due to serious air pollution amid a surge in industrial production, China wrestles with the environmental challenges of a boom and bust economy.

Andy Wong/AP
A man, wearing a mask for protection against pollution, exercises in Beijing's Ritan Park on Monday. Chinese cities are limiting the number of cars on roads and have temporarily shut down factories to cut down pollution during a national 'red alert' for smog.

In what has become an annual tradition, a winter shroud of dense smog has settled on Chinese cities. In response, government officials have shut down factories, banned driving, closed schools, and canceled flights.

“A total of 24 Chinese cities are on red alert due to serious air pollution, which will affect many people's New Year holiday plans,” reported China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection Wednesday.

A red alert is the most serious of China’s four-tier warning system for air pollution. Most of the country's air pollutants come from coal-fired power plants and industrial activities such as steel and cement production. Pollution rises in the winter when energy needs, still largely met by coal-fired power plants, spike.

Though China has been working in recent years to reduce coal use and the accompanying pollution – which one study from the University of California in Berkeley said was responsible for 4,000 deaths a day – its government appears to be struggling to balance the country’s economic needs with those of public health and the environment. 

Greenpeace, a global environmental advocacy organization, pegs the spike in air pollution over the past few weeks to a 2016 economic stimulus package that incentivized increased production of steel and cement to meet demand in real estate construction and public infrastructure projects.

“With the increase of steel prices came an expansion of coal-fired production in steel-producing areas, and with it, a halt in air quality improvement,” wrote Zhang Kai, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace, in a December 16 analysis.

Stringent anti-pollution laws that started to take effect in 2014 helped reduce pollution in some Chinese cities by up to 20 percent over a couple of years. But amid an economic slowdown in 2016, the trend started to reverse, as government propped pollution-producing industries to spur economic growth.

The slowdown of air quality improvements become clear in December and over the New Year holiday, when average concentrations of small, harmful particles in the air known as PM2.5 climbed past 500 micrograms per cubic meter in the capital of Beijing and nearby regions. A concentration of these particles above 301 is considered “hazardous” in the United States. The smog is expected to last through the first week of January.

But despite the current smog, some signs point to clearer skies on the horizon, says Ranping Song, senior associate in the Global Climate Program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

“We will be able to see some progress along the way, but we will continue to be concerned for the public for a long time,” Mr. Song tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Song points to declining coal use as one sign of progress. According to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, the country’s coal production dropped by 10.2 percent to 2.18 billion tons between 2016 and 2015. And until 2016, China’s air quality overall had been improving for a couple of years, as national efforts to curb air pollution and cut coal use took shape, along with better enforcement of new emission standards for power plants and other industries, as Greenpeace’s senior coal campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta pointed out online on December 2. "It's really clear that the government wants to make environmental changes," says Song.

Over the New Year’s holiday, Chinese officials from the environment ministry penalized more than 500 Chinese companies and around 10,000 car owners for environmental violations, according to CNN, doling out $35 million in fines.

Overall, China is working hard to wean itself off coal and other polluting industries. Beijing and other cities are switching some power stations from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, and encouraging use of electric vehicles to reduce car emissions. The country also has committed to producing 20 percent of its electricity from non-polluting sources such as wind and solar by 2030 and is one of the world’s biggest investors in clean energy technologies.

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