Hazardous smog has hit 17 Chinese provinces and municipalities, affecting 600 million people this year. The capital, Beijing, was shrouded in smog for several days during the seven-day national holiday, disappointing visitors who wanted to experience the city in its best season.
Vehicles drive on a smoggy day in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang province, Oct. 22, 2013.[Xinhua]
Recently, cities in northeast China have also been engulfed in smog. In Harbin, schools and airports were forced to close, traffic ground to a halt, and the measurement of fine particulate matter in the air, known as PM2.5, reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of the city, 40 times the safe level determined by the World Health Organization.
At a press conference in March, Premier Li Keqiang vowed to deal with pollution, saying that "we will upgrade the country's economic development model so people can enjoy clean air, and safe drinking water and food… We need to enforce the law with an iron fist." Now, with the adoption of the toughest ever anti-pollution plans, China is able to sense the strength of this fist.
A multi-pronged plan of action
In September, China unveiled The Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17), which will be backed by an investment from the central government of 1,700 billion yuan ($277 billion).
The government has also allocated 5 billion yuan (US$814 million) for air pollution treatment in the heavily-polluted municipalities Beijing and Tianjin, the provinces Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
According to the action plan, China will cut coal use, shut down polluters and promote cleaner production. As part of a broader air pollution campaign, China will promote industry upgrades, eliminate overcapacity in production and tighten control over high-polluting and energy-intensive industries.
The plan says that the government will cut the density of inhalable particulate matter by at least 10 percent in major cities nationwide by 2017. Specific targets are also in place for Beijing and surrounding provincial areas, as well as the Yangtze Delta and the Pearl River Delta regions.
Beijing, Tianjin and surrounding areas will pilot an air quality warning system in November, and a national network to monitor the impact of air pollution on the health may be established within three to five years.
"China is highly dependent on coal, which accounts for almost 70 percent of its total energy consumption. The most important task at present is to reduce coal consumption," noted Ma Zhong, dean and professor at the School of Environment and Natural Resources, at Renmin University of China.
The capital takes the lead
Echoing the national action plan, Beijing has announced its Five-Year Clean Air Action Plan (2013-2017).
According to the plan, Beijing needs to reduce the density of particles by 25 percent or more on the PM2.5 scale by 2017. By the end of 2014, Beijing will build four power and heating stations to replace coal with natural gas for heating and power generation. As car emissions account for 22.2 percent of Beijing's PM2.5 particles, many of the measures are aimed at reducing emissions from cars.
The city has just put into effect the Beijing Municipal Heavy Air Pollution Emergency Response Program. Drivers will only be allowed to use their cars every other day when a red air pollution alert has been issued. Cars with odd and even license plates will be allowed on the road on alternating days.
During a red alert, kindergartens, primary and high schools will be suspended, and some industrial plants will be shut down.
Taking action across China
The other five heavily polluted regions in China are also looking at ways to combat air pollution. The Tianjin Municipal Government has vowed to impose controls on coal consumption, vehicles, dust and industrial pollution, and has established 66 specific measures and 2,055 anti-pollution programs.
Hebei Province has taken efforts to cut emissions, including making energy consumption more efficient and upgrading its industrial structure. Its coal consumption will be reduced by 40 million tons over the coming winter and next spring. The province will also install surveillance cameras in 95 percent of its construction sites by the end of the year, to cut down on dust in urban areas.
Shanxi Province has outlined 2,089 programs to improve air quality, which will be backed by 430 billion yuan (US$70 billion) of investment. By the end of 2017, all the coal-fired boilers and kilns in the province will be removed from industrial zones, and steel production will be reduced by 6 million tons.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region will develop desulfurization, denitrification and dust removing facilities in coal-fired plants, steel mills and cement plants, and gradually replace decentralized coal-fired boilers in industry clusters.
Shandong Province plans to supervise the anti-pollution efforts of key industries, and nine cities will consider a plan to replace coal-fired boilers. The province has approved 200 million yuan (US$33 million) to clear heavy-polluting "yellow-label" vehicles from its roads.
Officials given more responsibilities
A draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law has proposed that the government at all levels be charged with greater responsibility to improve the environment. The draft amendment was submitted to the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, on October 21 for discussion.
It specifies that local governments should increase investment in improving the environment and preventing pollution, and support the environmental protection industry.
The draft amendment also proposes that environmental protection work should become a criterion in evaluating the work of departments and governments at lower levels, as well as officials in charge of subordinate authorities.
A new clause says that related departments of the State Council and provincial-level governments should fully consider the environmental impact of their policies, and consult experts.
The draft amendment also pledges punishments by imposing punishments on those responsible for trying to escape supervision or evade laws. Those responsible for environmental pollution accidents will also face harsher punishments.
"Western countries have spent decades trying to improve their air quality, and are still trying," said Chai Fahe, vice-president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.
"China is trying its best to make improvements as soon as possible, but we also need to be realistic about the hardships ahead and prepare for a protracted war against pollution. It's a war that will involve every single member of the public," Chai said.