* "Low carbon" policy in Baoding fails to clear air
* Northern city remains among China's most polluted
* Problems underline scale of task nationwide
* Government has made tackling smog a priority
By David Stanway
BAODING, China, May 14 Seven years ago, the
Chinese city of Baoding launched an ambitious "low-carbon" plan
using renewables like solar power to light its streets and heat
residential buildings, putting it at the forefront of the
country's battle to cut pollution.
In 2013, Baoding was still the third most polluted city in
the country, with levels of harmful particles in the air more
than 40 percent above those in the nearby capital Beijing.
Baoding's failure to clean up its act underlines the scale
of the challenge facing China as it seeks to end an obsession
with economic growth and make protecting the environment a
Named one of China's first official "low-carbon pilot zones"
in 2010, the city of 11 million people remains beholden to
"dirty" industries like steel and cement production, and is not
expected to see noticeable improvement for at least five years.
Baoding's fight against pollution also sheds light on the
way local governments have viewed environmental protection as
another source of growth, with its efforts to churn out
thousands of megawatts of solar power capacity every year merely
making the smog thicker.
"By just developing manufacturing facilities for clean
energy, you aren't actually fixing your own environmental
problems -- actually, you are making them worse by consuming
energy and polluting more to manufacture the products," said Qi
Ye, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy,
who helped the city draw up its low-carbon strategy.
In March, China declared "war" on pollution. Choking smog
blankets many cities and environmental degradation resulting
from breakneck economic growth is angering an increasingly
well-educated and affluent population.
On the face of it, the city of Baoding is better placed than
most to survive Beijing's campaign to shut ageing plants.
It has spent more than 10 years nurturing high-technology
sectors, and is home to the world's biggest PV (photovoltaic)
manufacturer, Yingli Solar. Renewables generate around a
fifth of local GDP, many times the national average. Baoding's
long-term aim is to raise the share to 50 percent.
But dirtier industries like the manufacture of cars, steel
and cement, as well as a profitable but low-tech recycling
sector, still predominate.
Some experts believe it is time for Baoding to bite the
bullet, however painful that may be for the economy and society.
"Baoding made a decision a decade ago to concentrate on
renewable energy, and I think if it was a choice between steel
and renewables, it is now the time to say they made the right
decision," said Lei Hongpeng, senior associate at the World
Resources Institute who was also involved in drawing up
Baoding's low-carbon development plans.
"Now Baoding needs to shut down heavy-polluting factories
and this will definitely bring challenges to its economy and
society, but they must take care of it -- people are no longer
at the stage where they need to pollute to survive," he said.
The city's location in Hebei, home to seven of China's 10
smoggiest cities, means its battle to reduce pollution levels
cannot be fought in isolation.
"We don't look at this as just a Baoding problem but as a
problem for the whole of northern China," said Liu Chongyuan,
26, a Baoding resident and member of staff at Yingli Solar,
speaking to Reuters at the company's headquarters.
"Pollution is still very bad, but we can't run everything on
solar, not with energy demand so high and the population so
dense," he added.
Two years before being named a "low-carbon pilot zone",
Baoding had already set a target to cut carbon intensity -- the
amount of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of
growth -- by 52 percent by 2020, higher than the national goal
of 40-45 percent.
Renewables offered Baoding a niche in a region saturated by
traditional industries like cement, glassmaking and steel, and
the city's initial focus was to use solar panel and wind turbine
manufacturing to maintain rapid rates of economic growth to try
to catch up with richer cities in the region.
But scholars have long complained that instead of tackling
the sources of pollution, which could threaten growth, local
governments preferred to invest in environmental treatment or
Like Baoding, local authorities also hoped to kill two birds
with one stone by nurturing big renewable energy manufacturers
like Yingli through the use of tax breaks and the establishment
of industrial parks.
But solar power manufacturing requires huge amounts of
mostly coal-fired power from the grid to run its machinery.
It also discharges large volumes of wastewater, and the
industry has been seeking to clean up production processes that
have in some cases raised fluoride levels in Baoding's surface
water more than 10 times higher than normal.
"We have paid a lot of attention to this because we cannot
become real clean energy producers unless our manufacturing is
clean too," said Liu at Yingli.
Baoding uses solar power to run outdoor lighting and a
hotel, but compared to the energy its plants consume, generation
is low. Yingli produced 3,200 megawatts of panels last year, but
Hebei as a whole has only 461 MW of grid-connected solar
capacity, 3.9 percent of China's total.
Sources close to the government said it will soon announce
plans to build a huge solar-power generation project later this
year. But how much renewable power the city actually consumes
will ultimately be determined by the State Grid.
The Baoding authorities have made a public vow to cut PM2.5,
or the number of harmful fine particles in the atmosphere, by
four percent this year and said they would adopt measures to
achieve a "turnaround" in the city's air quality in three years.
However, they said the impact would only be fully visible
after five years.
The local government did not agree to an interview request,
but admitted in a faxed statement that while it was "strongly
pushing forward" with efforts to control pollution, little
progress had been made so far.
The local government has already shut more than 4,000 small
polluting enterprises since last year, and others have been
ordered to "restructure".
The struggling Shenzhen-listed Swan Fiber was
recently asked to move one of its chemical plants out of
Baoding, while carmaker Great Wall Motors has vowed
to clean up its manufacturing processes.
Near the PV-powered headquarters of Yingli Solar, many
factories have been abandoned, their land put up to let. But
scrap yards, workshops and low-end recycling plants abound.
The Communist Party chief of the city, Nie Ruiping, admitted
in March that more closures were necessary, telling state media:
"We cannot sacrifice the environment to make money."
Analysts say Baoding and other cities in Hebei have been
trapped in a vicious circle, providing raw materials and low-end
industry for the more prosperous Beijing and Tianjin.
Beijing has said it would shift some government functions to
Baoding, leading to a spike in house prices last month. It is
also in the process of moving some industrial firms to Baoding
and other cities in Hebei province.
"In the last year, the government has announced some very
ambitious policies about cleaning industry and switching to
cleaner forms of energy, and maybe they will have an impact over
the next few years," said Feng Jinlei, low-carbon programme
officer with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), who has also
"But pollution is still a regional issue and in the end it
needs strong action from both Hebei and Beijing."
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)