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Rules to stop Beijing smog need strong political will

Publication Date : 05-02-2013


After weeks of being smothered by choking smog, Jolene Mei heaved a sigh of relief last Friday at the sight of clear, blue skies in China's capital.

But her joy quickly turned to alarm on Sunday when the ghastly smog made its return after the gusty winds and snowfall that had chased it away left Beijing.

Another reason for the smog's return was the lifting of emergency measures introduced by Beijing last month to tackle the pollution problem that hit global headlines and dented the city's image.

The measures, which included halting production at 103 polluting factories, blocking trucks with loose soil and banning 30 per cent of official cars from roads, expired last Thursday night.

"My big fear is air quality will deteriorate again after the authorities removed emergency measures to cut back pollution on Thursday night," said Mei, a health-care professional in her 20s.

Fortunately for her and Beijing's 20 million-plus residents, strong winds yesterday helped improve the Air Quality Index (AQI) to 65 in the afternoon, a far cry from Jan 12, when it went off the charts with readings beyond 500. On that day, the density of PM2.5 particulate matter hit a high of 993 micrograms per cubic metre.

Yesterday, the PM2.5 reading of about 21 micrograms per cubic metre was slightly above the readings of 10 to 16 in Singapore, which saw a "good" range of between 0 and 50 on the Pollution Standards Index (PSI). The AQI used by Beijing measures PM2.5 particulate matter, while the PSI used by Singapore measures the bigger PM10 particulate matter.

The cold front reportedly pushed China's smog to parts of Japan like Nagasaki, with Japanese computer simulations showing the amount of health-threatening tiny particles in those areas were double that of normal levels.

Still, many like Mei, reeling from the sight and smell of polluted air, want the authorities to make clear skies a permanent fixture in Beijing.

A debate has emerged, however, among the public and scholars over the best way to prevent the smog from making a comeback.

Some media outlets and netizens in the past week say the answer lies in even stronger laws. But others argue that Beijing is hardly deficient in ideas or rules, as shown by the raft of emergency measures rolled out last month.

"The government already has many targeted measures," said Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs professor Ma Jun.

"The key question is how to implement these measures long term - this is very hard."

In a nutshell, many believe that what China lacks is strong political will to enforce anti-pollution laws and measures to overcome the vested-interest groups that block them.

The world saw glimpses of such determination in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The capital adopted several measures, including shutting down construction sites and factories around Beijing while getting more coal-burning homes and enterprises to convert to gas. These actions underscored its ability to keep its air pristine.

But pollution has climbed back up since then - to the point where spending a smoggy day in Beijing is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes, Tsinghua University researchers have told the media.

The smog problem has led Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian to pledge an expansion of China's anti-pollution programme.

More vehicles that fall short of emissions standards will be removed from the roads, and petrol stations must offer high-quality petrol and diesel, he told a work meeting on Jan 24.

But such promises may end up as hot air, some believe, unless incoming Premier Li Keqiang shows the resolve to make officials and interest groups fall in line.

One obstacle to environmental reforms that netizens have pointed fingers at this week are the state-owned oil giants.

The oil companies have dragged their feet over producing better-quality, cleaner fuels so that cars can meet emission standards, because refining cleaner fuel would jack up their costs.

Sinopec chairman Fu Chengyu admitted last Thursday that oil refining companies are among those directly responsible for the smog. But he insisted that the pollution problem really lies in China's oil standards, which are not high enough.

Such comments were jeered by some netizens as a case of state players "pushing the blame around". Experts like National School of Administration professor Wang Yukai also called for these oil giants' influence on energy policies to be curtailed.

Amid public pressure, Sinopec has said it will upgrade its desulphurisation facilities to produce cleaner fuel from next year.

Another problem area is corrupt officials who hamper anti- pollution efforts. Over 30 officials in the southern city of Nantong were the latest to be exposed for taking bribes from enterprises to condone their polluting activities, the China Business News reported last week. Former Nantong Environment Bureau director Lu Boxin has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for taking bribes.

Prof Ma noted that "the power of society... and social pressure is a positive force" to get rid of obstacles to clean air. But it will still take time - even another 40 years - to enforce laws to help Beijing meet World Health Organisation air-quality standards, he said.

Li Keqiang also stressed on Jan 15 that "the resolution (to the pollution problem) will require a long-term process".

"But we must act," he said.


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