27 February 2020
Shanghai has seen pollution reach dangerous levels in recent days
Shanghai has seen pollution reach dangerous levels in recent days

POLICY WATCH: Shanghai smog adds new urgency to pollution fight

With the financial hub Shanghai blanketed by dense smog for much of the past week, affecting people’s lives and disrupting normal business activity, there is an added sense of urgency among Chinese authorities on the need to improve the nation’s air quality.

Amid worries that the choking pollution in urban centers may even derail the nation’s economic recovery, policymakers are scrambling for quick-fixes and also reminding local governments of the long-term environmental targets. 

Taking the lead, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top economic planning agency which also oversees China’s policies related to climate change, on Dec. 10 issued a fresh call to strengthen the carbon emission reduction and energy-saving efforts, to help the government achieve the targets set in the 12th Five-Year Plan.

Under the economic blueprint set in 2011, the government aims to achieve 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by 2015, compared with 2010 levels. But as of now, the goal appears difficult as the actual work on the ground has been inadequate.

Concerns about the environment have intensified following the grim situation in Shanghai, as the city suffered one of its worst spells of air pollution in recent days. Thick smog reduced visibility on the roads in the nation’s financial capital to a few meters, prompted cancellation of public events and a halt to outdoor construction work. Flights have been delayed and people had to put up with many other inconveniences.

While Shanghai grabbed the world headlines, it was not the only place in China that was smothered by dangerous levels of pollution. In recent weeks, as many as 104 cities in various provinces saw pollution reach alarming levels. Among the affected areas were industrial clusters in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze River Delta, according to the nation’s environment ministry.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has warned that the deteriorating environment could hinder the nation’s economic growth.

The NDRC said the smog shows the government faces an uphill battle to achieve its green target. It urged all local governments and departments to strictly implement energy saving and carbon emission reduction measures, as well as execute policies under the air pollution prevention action plan.

To achieve the emission reduction target, local authorities have been urged to focus on adjusting the industry structure in their regions by curbing projects that consume lot of energy or cause heavy pollution. Also, steps need to be taken to resolve industrial overcapacity and fade out obsolete production in some heavy industries.

The government, meanwhile, would devote additional resources to speed up the development of hydropower, nuclear energy, wind power, solar energy and bio-fuels, as well as control the use of coal, the NDRC said. All new projects are required to meet energy-saving targets. In other initiatives, authorities will study the possibility of establishing emissions and energy-savings trading mechanism. 

China has, in fact, spent more than 200 billion yuan to cope with the impact of climate change, on things such as drought and flood alleviation work, during the past two decades.

A government document has set out a region-based approach and called for more investment in areas such as early warning systems for natural disasters, development of sustainable farming practices and protection of nature.

“Climate change is already affecting the survival and sustainability of the environment and development in many areas,” the document says, noting that China has already experienced more frequent droughts in the north of the country, floods in the south, as well as more severe typhoons, snow, low temperatures and heat waves.

The report warned that climate change has caused unstable agriculture production and led to serious water shortages. It called for more work to raise public awareness on the impact of climate change and boost disaster response measures.

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EJ Insight writer