In 1999, a front page headline in the then Beijing Evening News read: “We must not allow polluted air to accompany us into the 21st century”.
However, 17 years on, the smog in major cities across the mainland has turned out to be even more relentless and now covers one-seventh of the country.
So why has the Chinese government, which is famous for efficiency and which has put so much effort into cleaning up the skies over the years, failed to contain the smog problem?
Some official mouthpieces in China have recently blamed the catering industry for the intense air pollution across big cities, claiming that the clouds of smoke emitted from the chimneys of restaurants account for almost 13 percent of the PM2.5 particles in Beijing’s atmosphere.
However, such ridiculous accusation has immediately drawn fierce criticism and mockery from netizens. Some joked that the Communist Party may be running out of excuses that one day it might start blaming the smog on people farting.
Another popular myth is that carbon emission from cars is the main contributing factor.
It might be true that exhaust gases from vehicles contribute to the smog but it is hardly the main cause, because it only accounts for a small portion of the pollutants that are floating in the atmosphere.
In other words, even if all the combustion-engine cars were removed from the roads of Beijing, which is quite impossible, the smog would probably remain there.
As a matter of fact, it is almost an open secret that emissions from coal-fired power plants are the undisputed leading causes of smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution across China.
And coal-burning currently fuels an astounding 70 percent of electricity in China compared with only 26 percent in Japan, 17 percent in the US, 12 percent in Britain and 3.6 percent in France.
In 2015 alone, China consumed almost four billion tons of coal, more than those of the US and Western Europe combined.
So as the Chinese public, entrepreneurs and even the Chinese government itself are well aware that coal-burning is the main culprit of the smog, why doesn’t Beijing simply replace coal with other clean energy sources or issue orders to cut down on coal consumption?
The answer is it cannot, because there are so many vested interests involved in the coal mining industry in China.
Reducing the consumption of coal could have far-reaching implications for the entire Chinese economy, which is struggling to keep annual growth above 6 percent.
For example, amid the economic slowdown in the mainland in recent years, the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, the traditional heartland of coal production in China, have to rely on coal production to keep their economy humming.
In some counties, the local authorities have to step up efforts to build more coal-fired power stations in order to boost their gross domestic product.
Besides, coal is much cheaper compared with oil and other energy sources, and is welcomed by manufacturers across the country to reduce production cost.
China will probably be stuck with coal power and filthy air for a long time to come.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 6
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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