or hundreds of millions of northern Chinese, the start of 2017 has been engulfed in thick smog after the country was hit by one of the worst episodes of air pollution in recent years. On New Year’s Day yellow, orange or red alerts were issued in 62 cities.
The recurring air pollution has led to ever-increasing public anger and frustration, as many see the government’s repeated pledges to curb air pollution as nothing but empty promises. As air pollution has emerged to become one of the top concerns for China’s rising middle class, the government needs to take more drastic environmental action.
Firstly, the government must step up its enforcement of environmental codes. A major reason for the persistence of air pollution is the massive violation of environmental regulations. For example, in many cities, the air pollution index in the early morning is higher than in the evening, as many factories choose to operate at night, taking advantage of the darkness to cover their release of toxic substances. This is one reason why air pollution is much worse in winter than in other seasons, as the nights are longer.
This prevalent practice has largely gone unpunished as few polluters have been caught in recent years. The few that did get caught were typically subject to a fine of a few thousand dollars – a negligible amount compared to the potential economic benefits. The result is that it is simply more profitable for businesses to ignore or violate environmental regulations.
To seriously fight air pollution, the government needs to reverse this equation. Not only should the government increase the economic punishment for polluting, but it should consider pressing criminal charges against serious polluters. Under Chinese law, polluting is technically a criminal offense, with polluters subject to jail terms. Unfortunately, there have been few cases in which polluters are held criminally responsible. To effectively combat environmental pollution, the government should seriously enforce its environmental codes and laws.
Secondly, the government should undertake major reform of China’s energy generation structure. Currently, coal, which is believed to create more than 40 percent of China’s air pollution, provides about 70 percent of China’s energy needs. By contrast, the global average is 30 percent. China produces and consumes about half of the world’s total coal. Although the government has pledged to reduce the consumption of coal, the reality is that more coal-fired power plants are planned in the coming decade.
Many have attributed the government’s continued use of energy subsidies to the influence of the State-owned fossil fuel sector, which wants to lower the energy price and ensure a steady supply of power. To deal with the environmental challenges, the government should reform its energy subsidy policy to incorporate environmental and social costs into the cost of energy produced by coal and other fossil fuels. This is the only way that China can bring meaningful change to its energy structure.
Thirdly, rather than trying to persuade people to wait when the government works to curb air pollution, which could take some years, the government should take measures to tackle some direct concerns associated with air pollution. For example, in the wake of the new waves of smog, many Chinese parents have urged public schools to install air filter systems to protect the health of their students. In some cases, parents have taken the initiative to finance the installation of such systems. In most cases, their efforts have been rejected by public schools, afraid of the potential responsibility this implies. To mitigate the impact of air pollution, the education authority should allocate more funding and resources and work out a guideline for schools to respond to health threats posed by enduring air pollution.
For many years, China has favored economic growth, which often comes at a grim cost, over environmental protection. As clean air and a clean environment have become new aspirations for the public, it is time for the government to rethink and reform its fundamental approach to growth.