Cleaning Up China's Epic Smog Problem

Beijing should focus on big emitters like power plants and diesel trucks
Beijing Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The “airpocalypse” that settled over Beijing and vast swaths of northern China in late February, blotting out the sun and reducing visibility to a few meters, drove even longtime residents indoors. The air quality index, which measures a fine particulate known as PM 2.5, averaged more than 16 times the recommended limit. The Chinese capital became all but “unsuitable for human habitation,” as one report (quickly censored) put it.

The smog is sure to be a central topic at the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which began on March 5. Scientists claim that by blocking so much natural light, air pollution may threaten crops accounting for 10 percent of China’s gross domestic product. And as it spreads to Korea, Japan, and even California, the dirty air could soon become a geopolitical issue.

The government says it will take years if not decades for the curbs it has set on factory emissions, coal use, and high-polluting cars to take effect. In fact, the air could be cleared more quickly if authorities focused on the core of the problem, because a few big emitters account for most of the pollution, an analysis of real-time data has begun to show.

The eight dirtiest enterprises in Shandong and Hebei provinces north of Beijing produce 37 and 30 times the emissions of nitrogen oxide, respectively, as the eight dirtiest in Beijing itself. In Hebei, 21 power plants spew more than 90 percent of the nitrogen oxide emitted from all such utilities in the province. If these plants adhered to the limits the government recently decreed, their emissions would fall by more than half. Similarly, diesel trucks, which make up only about 5 percent of road vehicles, account for half of the nitrogen oxide emitted by all cars and trucks. Speeding up efforts to raise their fuel standards would also aid the cleanup.

The main obstacle to progress is that the biggest polluters tend to be the best connected politically. They ignore the rules because it’s cheaper to do so and because they can. The government’s environmental agencies, in contrast, are weak, overstretched, and lack the ability to enforce rules and standards.

Nevertheless, this must be Beijing’s focus—to publicly expose the most egregious culprits and subject them to intrusive inspections and heavy fines. Large state-owned companies should be forced to clean up their supply chains, while state-owned banks should be required to restrict lending to polluters that refuse to adhere to emissions standards.

If they really want to succeed, Chinese authorities must also welcome rather than reject the public’s help. Although the government has been relatively tolerant of open debate and even satire online about the smoggy skies, censors have recently grown more heavy-handed as criticism of the party has mounted.

The more people know about what’s causing China’s pollution, the better equipped they will be to bring pressure on the enterprises and local officials responsible. China’s leaders need to move faster.


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