BEIJING Jan 17 Chinese leaders dazzled the
world by clearing the skies as if by edict before the Beijing
Summer Olympics in 2008. Fast forward to January 2013, and the
government seems powerless against those same skies, tarnished
by an opaque, toxic cloud that has smothered the city for nearly
The number-two leader in the country's Communist Party
hierarchy, Li Keqiang, appealed this week for Beijing's 20
million residents to show patience during what he said would be
a "long-term" clean-up.
Lower-level officials took emergency steps to cut traffic
and factory emissions to clear the worst outbreak of smog on
record, but the moves are likely to bring only temporary relief
from a chronic problem that has been years in the making.
Why have conditions deteriorated so drastically?
Environmentalists and analysts suggest a complex mix of
causes, from an over-reliance on heavy industry and an addiction
to dirty coal, to poor enforcement of pollution laws, hundreds
of thousands of new cars on the roads and incentives for local
officials to promote economic growth at all costs.
China's capital has been enveloped in smog since Friday, and
the municipal government warned residents to stay indoors after
pollution readings hit record rates late on Saturday.
In the face of widespread public anger and rare media
criticism, the government said it would force some vehicles off
the road and temporarily close dozens of factories. But
environmentalists say more comprehensive solutions are required.
"It is really just a temporary measure, and in the longer
term you really have to get at the root causes like coal-burning
factories," said Ming Sung, chief Asia-Pacific representative
with the U.S.-based Clean Air Task Force.
KING COAL, DIRTY COAL
Coal production and consumption have tripled since 2000,
while steel output is expected to have reached around 720
million tonnes in 2012, over five times the 2000 rate.
Such breakneck expansion has come at a huge price.
A sustained effort to reduce dependence on heavy industry,
and on the fossil fuels that sustain it, is still necessary,
said Yang Fuqiang, a former government energy policy researcher
and now senior adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
China plans to cap total coal consumption at around 3.9
billion tonnes by 2015, but the government, environmental
critics say, needs eventually to force through a cut.
"Enough is enough -- last year we burned more than 3.6
billion tonnes of coal and some people expect that to increase
to 4 or 5 billion tonnes, but that is impossible," Yang said.
"We have to say when coal consumption will start going down.
This is not just for Beijing but the whole of China."
NOT JUST BEIJING
In the run-up to the Olympic Games in 2008, authorities in
Beijing replaced coal with natural gas in some power stations
and for indoor heating in parts of the capital. The city also
temporarily shut factories and forced the biggest industrial
firms to depart from heavily populated central districts.
One of the city's flagship enterprises, the Shougang Group,
relocated all its steelmaking facilities to the new port of
Caofeidian in neighbouring Hebei province 200 km away.
But such moves simply shifted rather than eliminated
pollution sources, and air quality has continued to deteriorate.
"You can't tell pollution not to come over to my territory -
this really needs to be nationwide," said Sung.
The China Academy of Sciences estimates a quarter of the
lethal PM2.5 emissions drifting across Beijing originate from
beyond its borders, with the industrial heartland of Hebei
province, which surrounds the capital, a major culprit.
Hebei is responsible for more than a quarter of national
steel output - an industry that accounts for a quarter of the
nation's total coal consumption - and it is also a major cement
producer. Its cities, including Shijiazhuang, were at least as
badly hit as Beijing over the weekend.
GROWTH AT ALL COSTS
China's efforts to tackle pollution have not been successful
because most local governments, including Beijing, still
identify industrial growth as their main priority, said Yang.
"The Beijing Development and Reform Commission asked me to
give them ideas how to make Beijing much cleaner while still
maintaining economic growth. I told them they have to change
Much of Beijing's industry has been shifted out of the city
centre, but with most still in the suburbs, the move did little
to improve overall air quality, especially when the pollution is
trapped by weather conditions - as it was over the weekend.
Coal-fired power stations remain in operation in the heart
of the capital's business districts and Beijing continues to vie
with rivals like Tianjin for heavy industrial projects.
Although Beijing could develop cleaner, high-tech options,
such a transformation would be even harder in the mining belts
of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, regions that share the
notoriously polluted coal region known as the Black Triangle.
Sung said the technologies already exist to clean up coal
and power production in the region, but more incentives were
needed to implement them. China has already made it compulsory
to install desulphurising facilities at power plants, but
regulation has been weak and some plants have been accused of
disabling equipment in order to cut costs.
Beijing could take other steps relatively quickly, including
mandating use of effective catalytic convertors and filters in
vehicles, and implementing long-term guidelines to reduce
traffic congestion. Despite current restrictions, about a
quarter-million new cars are added to city roads each year.
The government also needs to tackle the problem of heating,
with most residential buildings outside Beijing's second ring
road still reliant on coal during the freezing winters.
Premier-designate Li said on Tuesday that tackling pollution
was a "long-term process", but Yang said it needed to be treated
as a national emergency akin to London's "killer smog" of 1952,
which led to new laws that transformed Britain's skies.
"If the Chinese still say this is long-term, I don't think
they will clean up. Ordinary measures no longer help and I think
Beijing has to adopt a more emergency response."
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Ken Wills)