Officials target China's air pollution with fines, stepped-up enforcement

About 1.6 million people die in China every year because of air pollution, but new – and newly enforced – policies are being deployed to change that.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File
Laborers work on a smoggy day in Beijing on June 16, 2015.

Outdoor air pollution contributes to the deaths of about 4,400 people per day in China, according to a recent scientific paper.

The paper once again raised concerns about China’s air pollution, as the government, gradually getting ready for the 2022 Winter Olympics, has steadily increased their efforts to combat pollution.

In November 2014, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon reached a key climate change deal with Washington to cap its emissions by 2030 through increasing its use of renewable, zero-emission energy sources to 20 percent of its total energy budget.

And in June, with an eye on the UN’s December climate talks in Paris, Beijing formally committed to halting the rise in its greenhouse gas emissions within the next 15 years.

‌‌‌By all accounts, China's President Xi Jinping is serious.

Last March, in an annual legislative meeting, he pledged to step up enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws.

"We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions," Mr. Xi said, according to China's Xinhua news outlet.

The nation of almost 1.4 billion people has taken several steps to tackle air pollution.

In January, a new environmental protection law took effect that imposes heavy fines on polluters. Since then, companies have been fined $18.3 million in 160 cases, China Daily reported in June. In addition, 1,186 companies were shut down entirely, 698 cases resulted in limitations or suspensions on production, 437 cases led to administrative detention, and 429 were charged with environmental crimes, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Beijing is set to close its last coal-fired generators by 2017 and build four gas-fired power and heating plants by next year, say officials.

China has been also investing heavily in solar power. In 2013, it installed a record 12 gigawatts of solar power. In 2014 the country added another 12 gigawatts of solar power, reports Bloomberg News, narrowly missing its goal of 14 gigawatts.

In March, Beijing promised to install as much as 17.8 gigawatts of solar projects in 2015. By comparison, the US added 7.3 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2014.

"This reflects China’s stronger efforts to reduce emissions," said Peng Peng, a Beijing-based analyst from the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, to Bloomberg.

In April, Bloomberg wrote that the Chinese government's firm commitment to tackle air pollution has put increased pressure on local government officials: "Local officials whose promotions are often tied to faster economic growth are now boasting of their environmental activism, a contrast to former years when they cared about nothing except economic expansion."

They are also are tightening fuel standards and promoting electric vehicles, as gas-powered vehicles are the major source of pollution in many cities, Bloomberg reported.

China has long been one of the world’s most polluted countries, but recently the country is showing signs of progress.

Last year, China’s carbon dioxide emissions declined for the first time in more than a decade. Total carbon emissions in the world’s second-biggest economy dropped two percent in 2014 from the previous year. 

In addition, a new study from the London School of Economics found that China was on track to have total emissions start falling in 2025, five years ahead of its pledged goal. "They could peak even earlier than that," wrote study authors Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern. "With a comprehensive approach to reform, [emissions] could also fall rapidly post-peak."

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