22 February 2019
The adverse impact of stricter emission standards will come before any improvement in air quality could be seen. Photo: Reuters
The adverse impact of stricter emission standards will come before any improvement in air quality could be seen. Photo: Reuters

China’s half-hearted war against air pollution

China has declared war on air pollution, but it is not deploying enough troops and ammunition in order to win, environmental experts say.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the central government agency in charge of fighting the scourge, only had about 1/15 of the fiscal budget of its American counterpart in 2012, the think tank Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC) said in a recent report.

In 2012, the US Environmental Protection Agency had a budget of US$8.9 billion to ease the nation’s domestic pollution problems, US$820 million of which was allocated to address air pollution issues. For the same period, MEP spent about 3.74 billion yuan (US$600 million) to protect the environment. It did not provide a breakdown of how much was spent in tackling air pollution problems. 

Comparing the two countries’ efforts to battle air pollution may appear unfair, considering that the US is a much bigger economy than China, according to some quarters. But it can also be said that China needs to allocate more resources for the purpose since it has a bigger air pollution problem as industries, a major source of environmental degradation, comprise nearly half of its economy while the US is a post-industrial, services-focused economy, observers say.  

Similar gaps in green investment can be found at the provincial level. In its report, the CAAC compared Guangdong and California “because they may represent the best practices in the two countries”, Xie Hongxing, director of the group’s secretariat,  told EJ Insight.

The US state’s budget for its clean air agency, the California Air Resources Board, was about US$555 million in 2012, while the total allocation for Guangdong’s environmental protection authority was only about US$92 million, the report said.

Guangdong has a population of about 104 million, compared with California’s 38 million. The US state is more than twice the size of the southern Chinese province, both in land area and gross domestic product (Guandong’s GDP was 5.71 trillion yuan or nearly US$1 trillion as of 2012).

CAAC, initiated by 10 of the country’s top Chinese research institutions including Tsinghua University and Peking University, as well as research units under the MEP in early 2013, also highlighted the serious manpower shortage in China’s campaign against air pollution.

The number of personnel and researchers in the US air quality divisions was more than 1,400, while China had less than 50, the think tank said, adding that even if all the faculty and staff in air protection research institutions under the MEP are included, the number will not pass 200. At the provincial level, the gap is even wider: California had 1,200 staff versus 22 in Guangdong.

“Such manpower shortage is not likely to be solved in the short term,” CAAC’s Xie said, adding that it takes time and much effort before the results of academic research can be translated into actual programs.

“A stronger air pollution inspection team should be built within the governmental system at both national and local levels to strengthen enforcement,” he said.

The report suggests that the government seek professional outside help to backstop its internal research and the formulation of appropriate solutions to the problem of air pollution, particularly the health hazards posed by PM2.5 or airborne particulates 2.5 microns or smaller in size.

Token investment growth

As smog continues to choke the country’s major cities, Premier Li Keqiang {李克强} declared war against air pollution in his work report at the start of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March.

Li pledged to fight pollution with the same vigor as the country’s campaign against poverty. But at the same time, he admitted that a balance must be struck between sustaining growth and protecting the environment.

Still, the government’s commitment to the cause of clean air can be measured best by the amount of resources it invests in the campaign. For 2014, China’s budget for environmental protection is 210.91 billion yuan, compared with 210.13 billion yuan last year, or a token increase of 0.37 percent. By comparison, its defense budget for this year rose 12.2 percent to 808.23 billion yuan.

Not only is the increase in the budget for environmental protection negligible, the amount actually spent was much lower than the allocation for the purpose in 2013. An accounting of last year’s expenditures indicated that the country only spent 85.8 percent of the budget for energy savings and environmental protection, which is lower by 9.73 percent than the actual expenditure in 2012.

Also during the national legislators’ meeting, MEP Deputy Minister Wu Xiaoqing {吳曉青} said environmental protection investment made by government authorities, financial institutions and private entities may amount to 5 trillion yuan under the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), and this will be backed by a 1.7 trillion yuan investment under the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-2017).

“But the 1.7 trillion yuan, as I know, is just an initial estimate, and the actual figure may be much higher, once the indirect costs generated by an increase in unemployment is taken into account,” Xie said, referring to the costs of jobless compensation and retraining of workers displaced by the campaign against outmoded production capacity.

Smell of money

During the recent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, President Xi Jinping {習近平} voiced his admiration after a delegation from the southwestern province of Guizhou boasted to him about its enviable air quality. He said that perhaps it would be a good idea if the province sold air cans amid the heavy air pollution faced by other regions.

The Chinese leader obviously meant it as a joke, but the officials took his word literally and soon announced that it would start manufacturing fresh air cans to boost tourism in the province.

Indeed, the anti-pollution fight may create business opportunities, especially in clean energy production and applications. For example, Sinopec plans to ramp up its annual production of shale gas to 5 billion cubic meters by 2015 and 10 billion cubic meters by 2017, while PetroChina’s target is 2.6 billion cubic meters by 2015.

International partners have been doing their bit to help the Chinese government attract private players to the clean energy sector by providing financing facilities, technical support and policy recommendations.

Last year, a Bus Rapid Transport system, partly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has started operation in Lanzhou, capital of western Gansu province.

The ADB lent about 1.03 billion yuan for the project, or about 34 percent of the total investment. The project will help reduce carbon dioxide by about 12,621 tons per year and gain about 6 million yuan from carbon trading for the bus operator in Lanzhou in the seven years to 2020, Xinhua News Agency reported in November 2013.

Also in 2013, a combined US$350 million was lent for two large projects in natural gas and renewable energy to create coal-free district energy systems in Inner Mongolia and Qingdao, an ADB spokesperson told EJ Insight, adding that more technical assistance projects and investments will be provided.

“We aim for demonstration effect and to catalyze private investment and wider application of our successful projects,” the spokesperson said through an email. “We’ll make sure the least emission intensive technology is appropriate for China, and provide suitable policy recommendations for similar future projects.”

Air pollution control is a complex issue, especially so for a vast country like China, which is determined to maintain its rapid economic growth while undertaking reforms to address industrial overcapacity and other economic imbalances blamed for the worsening degradation of the environment.

Given the government’s fiscal input into environmental protection, the country may only meet about 20 percent of the financial requirements to effectively fight environmental pollution, which is bound to worsen as it seeks to achieve a 7.5 percent increase in gross domestic product this year. (The country’s budget for environmental protection this year is roughly 200 billion yuan, while the target under the country’s five-year plan (2011-2015) is to allocate about 1 trillion yuan a year.)   

For many observers, the fear is that the adverse impact of stricter emission standards and the shutdown of outdated production capacities is likely to come much sooner than any noticeable improvement in air quality and benefits of sustainable development.

Is China ready to make the sacrifices and face the consequences of a protracted war against smog?

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]


EJ Insight reporter

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