Environment First Look

Can environmental police keep Beijing's smog in check?

Beijing announced several new measures aimed at curbing the country's smog problem on Saturday, including a new environmental police force, shutting down the city's only coal-fired power plant, and supplying cleaner gas and diesel to fuel stations. 

A woman walks past parked cars in heavy smog in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Jan. 7, 2017.
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A new police force will crack down on environmental offenders in Beijing, city officials announced Saturday, marking the Chinese government's latest attempt to reduce smog.

The environmental police squad was one of several new measures introduced by Cai Qi, acting mayor of Beijing, this weekend. Other measures included cutting coal use by 30 percent in 2017, shutting down 500 higher-polluting factories and upgrading 2,500 others, phasing out 300,000 higher-polluting older vehicles, and supplying cleaner gas and diesel at fuel stations starting Feb. 15. The announcement came one day after municipal authorities in Beijing announced they would install air purifiers in the city’s schools and kindergartens. 

"Though we have made some progresses, air pollution in winter is still very serious," Mayor Cai told the press and citizens on Saturday, as reported by China’s official Xinhua News Agency. "That's why the government must strengthen environmental protection and step up supervision and accountability in 2017." 

"Open-air barbecues, garbage incineration, biomass burning, dust from roads – these acts of non-compliance with regulations are actually the result of lax supervision and weak law enforcement," he added. 

Air pollution levels in Beijing and other Chinese cities are notoriously high in the winter months, regularly exceeding World Health Organization guidelines and resulting in the closure of schools and businesses, flight cancellations, and driving bans. As the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, China primarily attributes its smog to its thousands of factories and many older, inefficient vehicles. As Lonnie Shekhtman reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week: 

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...

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.

Despite the current state of China's air, there is some cause for optimism, Ranping Song, senior associate in the Global Climate Program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, told the Monitor, including declining coal use in recent years and, until 2016, improvements in China's overall air quality. There have also been heightened efforts to crack down on environmental offenders: Chinese officials penalized more than 500 Chinese companies and 10,000 car owners for environmental violations over the New Year's Holiday, collecting more than $35 million in fines, CNN reported. 

"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 said. 

Growing concern over air pollution has led to widespread smog-related rumors and pseudoscience online, as some Chinese citizens pointed out on Saturday. To counteract the spread of false information, more efforts will be made in Beijing in 2017 to educate the public on the realities of pollution, Cai told the press. 

"I think it's a good sign that more and more people were anxious about air pollution," he said. "The more they care, the more they will participate."