Red Alert—Air Quality in China has No Easy Solution
December 9, 2015
On Tuesday, the city of Beijing issued the “red alert” over air pollution levels in the country’s capital. The highest level of air quality alert came as the United Nations climate talks entered the second week in Paris, where the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has demonstrated an unprecedented level of openness to discussing the global challenge of climate change. Beijing’s air pollution serves as a painful reminder of the price the country has paid for rapid economic development in the preceding decades and the scale of the environmental challenge China faces. Meanwhile, the public exposure of its environmental challenge could compel the Chinese leadership to double down on its commitment to address its environmental issues and to play a constructive role in addressing global climate change.
Q1: Why did Beijing issue the “red alert”?
A1: Beijing issued the red alert— the highest in its four-tier system--on Tuesday when they determined that the air quality had deteriorated to the level at which people should stay indoors and that this level of pollution would last for three consecutive days . The air quality index of 308, recorded Tuesday afternoon, is over ten times higher than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Issuance of the “red alert” was the first time since the government introduced a color-coded emergency response plan to air pollution in 2013. Pursuant to those guidelines, driving was restricted, Beijing’s several thousand schools were closed, and some of the city’s factories were shut down.
Severe air pollution is not unique to Beijing, however. Also this week, the air quality index reached 999 in Anyang, Henan Province, and 822 in Handan, Hebei Province. By U.S. standards, anything above 300 is “hazardous,” meaning people should stay indoors.
As the criteria for alerts are not universal across the country, however, some cities with more severe air quality have not necessarily issued alerts or enacted emergency plans. The patchwork approach is a significant threat to public health.
Q2: What is Beijing doing about this? Is China serious about air pollution? Is Chinese participation in the UN talks just a show?
A2: The severe air pollution seen in Beijing is not due to the lack of political will. Since taking office in 2013, Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun has made air quality among his top priorities, and called for a 76 billion yuan ($11.9 billion) investment to improve air quality, including measures to replace coal-fired heating systems in urban areas with natural gas heating systems. Yet, there seems only so much that the municipal officials in Beijing can do when pollution originates in surrounding areas with coal-burning factories where environmental regulations and enforcement are more lenient.
Nonetheless, the top Chinese leaders seem to recognize that air pollution has turned into a major social problem as well as a political challenge. In spring of 2014, the Chinese government declared a “ war on pollution” to show its resolve in addressing the issue. Subsequently, China embarked upon converting coal-fired plants to gas-fired plants, upgrading the quality of vehicle fuel, among other measures. On the climate front, China has recently announced its plans to start a national emission trading system in 2017, peak its carbon emission by 2030, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent of its energy supply mix 2030.
However, it may still take some time before environmental and climate regulations are applied and enforced in a sound manner in areas that are heavily dependent on energy intensive manufacturing activities. For example, the transition to a low-carbon future could face some formidable opposition from some stakeholders, such as local officials who rely on heavy industries for tax revenues and job creation.
As the Chinese officials continue to focus on the details of the next five-year plan to be released in spring 2016, the ongoing air pollution concerns could serve as a reminder that the political stakes in handling environmental problems in China are ever more urgent.
Jane Nakano is a senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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