China's cold but cleaner skies bring an economic challenge

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Beijing’s skyline stands in smog on Oct. 15, 2018 when the air quality index was rated “very unhealthy.”

As winter’s approach brings the first days of heavy smog, thanks to coal-burning heaters, Beijing residents are donning air-filter masks or hunkering down indoors. The good news is that China’s air quality has been improving since 2013, though readings are still several times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends. Beijing has proved its war on pollution can work. Its next question is how to maintain progress toward cleaner skies with a greener economy. The current plan calls for reducing coal consumption to less than 58 percent of total energy by 2020, while raising natural gas to 10 percent, by closing and scaling down coal-fired plants and mines and creating “no-coal” residential zones. Government inspectors are turning up unannounced at factories, fining and shutting down violators until they comply. But these stringent measures can come at the cost of jobs. “For the workers, it poses some real challenges,” says Ma Jun, director of the nonprofit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Big factories can offer some compensation to workers, but private companies can’t,” he says, calling for the government to assist them. Moreover, industrial curbs could hit growth at a time when leadership seeks to double China’s 2010 gross domestic product and per capita income by 2020. “We all know that we cannot sustain that type of expansion,” Mr. Ma says, “because of the cost on our resources, on our society, on public health, on the air quality itself.”


Berkeley Earth, US State Department, International Energy Agency

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Why We Wrote This

Giving Beijingers more breathable air means cutting coal and other pollutants. But long-term climate solutions need to account for ripple effects – something China is confronting today.

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