With Beijing’s pollution hitting the front pages once again I spoke with British journalist and senior editor of That’s Beijing magazine, Oscar Holland, about the smog and what the government is doing to counter it.
Just how bad has the pollution been in Beijing this week?
Within the last few hours, some fortuitous winds and a rare rain shower have cleared the skies, but we’ve had almost a week of the heaviest smog that I’ve seen for some time. Over the last five days, the AQI [Air Quality Index] has only momentarily dropped below 300, which is the lower threshold of what is classified as ‘hazardous’. For most of the past 24 hours it’s been ‘beyond index’, which means over 500. By my reckoning, this has been the most consistently polluted period since last winter’s ‘airpocalypse’. It’s definitely been the most noticeable.
What action has been taken to reduce the smog over the last few days?
Some factories and outdoor construction sites have been suspended and a couple of nearby cities have placed restrictions on driving. The state news agency reported that 36 companies halted production, with another 75 being forced to limit their output. The impact was negligible – it was the wind that cleared the capital. These proposed solutions are all short-term and do nothing to tackle the cause of the problem.
But I think the moves hold positive signs, of sorts. The halting of industrial production was widely enforced during the 2008 Olympics, and cynics, myself included, thought that once the world stopped watching then the policy would be abandoned. It may do very little to solve Beijing’s environmental challenges, but it’s a signal that the issue is being taken more seriously.
Having said that, it’s important to note that when I say that the winds have been ‘fortuitous’, I mean this from a Beijing perspective. The worst of the smog has simply pushed south west to Hebei Province, so it’s not as if this current bout of pollution is even over yet. And I imagine the industrial restrictions will soon be lifted, now that the embarrassment of the world watching the seemingly apocalyptic capital has eased.
So do you think the government is beginning to accept the scale of the problem?
I think everyone here is in agreement that pollution is past the point where it can be ignored. When you wake up in the morning with the faint metallic taste in your mouth, or your kids are sent home from school because the air is too bad, then it’s going to be difficult to be told by your government that this isn’t a major problem.
I have always been sceptical about how serious the state is about dealing with air quality (rather than just making it look as if it is) because official AQI readings have always been much lower than those at the American Embassy. My closest official monitoring station is reporting an AQI of 132 whereas the American Embassy, which is about four or five miles north east of it is recording 180 which means it’s still classified as ‘unhealthy’. The Americans’ monitoring website is of course blocked inside China.
Recently however, it seems as if the official figures have been much closer to those reported by the US. I’d like to get hold of the raw data and make the comparison because this is just a hunch. But yes, I do actually think the government is taking this more seriously and that more substantial action is on the way. Although we’re starting from a very low base, so ‘more substantial’ is not the same as adequate.
So what long-term moves are being made to reduce pollution?
As ever, it’s very difficult to ascertain where rhetoric ends and meaningful action begins. In autumn last year an impressively ambitious action plan was announced between Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin, though it was heavy on targets and light on concrete policies. It remains to be seen how achievable it is.
But for all of the talk of possible solutions, from phasing out heavily polluting vehicles to building huge air purifiers to suck pollution out of the atmosphere, the simple fact remains that 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from coal. The authorities give mixed messages on how much they really grasp this simple fact. Last year’s action plan set a target of reducing coal use by 65 percent by 2017 – a huge commitment – yet state media remains filled with ludicrous attempts to rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking dragon boat. Recent restrictions on fireworks and barbecues in the city center are not tackling the issue at all – they simply give the illusion of action. What is needed is a fundamental shift in the way that energy is produced in this country.
As a one-party state, China is actually in a unique position to make this happen. But the dilemma is that if you ask people in China whether they would rather have clean air or a growing economy that provides a better life for their families, then I’m not sure how many are honestly going to go for the former. I don’t think the world can blame Chinese people for that and the challenge for the government is to forge a model that allows them to do both.
There are actually a number of really positive signs, despite the smog. Private investment and government subsidies for green technology production are increasing rapidly and are far more substantial than many people give the country credit for. But, as is always the case when talking about sustainability – it’s not enough and it’s not fast enough.
How have people in Beijing been reacting?
While the world’s media have been obsessing over Beijing’s ‘nuclear winter’, life has proceeded pretty much as normal here. I’ve heard more complaints from foreign correspondents on Twitter than I have from people ‘on the ground.’
Having said that, I don’t think this should be confused with indifference. I wrote something about Chinese New Year a few weeks back where I asked Chinese friends and colleagues about their hopes and concerns for the coming year. All of them mentioned pollution as the biggest challenge.
While it may seem that without democracy this sentiment is not worth too much, the Chinese government is very sensitive to public opinion. It has proven to be receptive to the issues that its citizens prioritize, which seems to be part of the social contract here. I honestly believe that middle class discontent and social media outrage are the two best ways to instigate change in China. As economic growth slows, a reduction in smog (and it’s causes) will become one of the social demands that the state must start meeting if it is to maintain stability.
Follow Oscar Holland on Twitter – @oscarholland
Follow Kaj Embrén on Twitter – @KajEmbren