When some 30 world leaders and hundreds of other dignitaries gathered in Beijing between May 14 and 16, 2017, for the first Belt and Road Forum, they were greeted by clear blue skies, which are rare most of the year but common at major international events like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2008.
For the opening day of the Belt and Road Forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, readings of fine but dangerous PM2.5 particles (particulate matter with diameter ≤ 2.5 micrometers) were near zero. As a capital city notorious for heavy air pollution, Beijing typically averages a level about three times the World Health Organization’s recommendation of no more than 25 microgrammes of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air, and even reaches 1,000 microgrammes on some days.
As with earlier events, the “blue skies” for this international gathering did not last long. Only five days after the conclusion of the Belt and Road Forum, Beijing residents braced for another round of polluted days caused by photochemical smog. Each time Beijing achieves this kind of temporary clean air during high-profile international events, the urban dwellers who have been suffering smog agony in Chinese cities always have this question in mind: why cannot the government try to make this kind of “Summit Blue” last longer? If the government can sufficiently curb air pollution through contingency measures including traffic control and the closing down of nearby factories, why cannot it make these regulations function regularly to achieve blue skies throughout the year?
The achievable “Summit Blue” in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese metropolises actually reveals a plain but inconvenient truth: the real obstacle that prevents China from solving the smog issue is a lack of political will rather than technological barriers or policy implementation difficulties. Most municipal governments in China, despite their intense endeavors to promote investment, infrastructure, and local economic development, have failed to pay sufficient heed to growing public demands for a cleaner environment, which in many cases conflicts with economic goals.
Only the political hype for a better international image during grand gatherings is sufficient to pressure local officials to take the necessary measures to tackle air pollution. Many of these measures are already in the policy toolboxes of municipal officials, but for fear of these policies hampering local economic activities, the government shelves them aside most of the time and only puts them into practice as contingency plans when a large number of international dignitaries are in town.
Environmental pollution is a global issue that most fast-growing economies have had to face, and is related to many factors such as economic structure, technological level, political systems, governance capacity, institution building, as well as public awareness and social participation. Like many other developing nations in the world, China is becoming more urban, with more than half of its population already dwelling in cities of various scales, most of which are being quickly industrialized and ready to absorb even more people from vast rural areas in the next two decades. As a consequence of poor urban planning, the swelling of the residential population at an incredible pace has made many Chinese cities even less habitable, with local people suffering from traffic congestion, polluted air, water shortage and contamination, loss of greenery, and land degradation.
China’s economic miracles over the last three decades have imposed enormous pressures upon the country’s already worsened environment and scant resources, with mounting ecological problems like air pollution, water pollution and shortages, soil contamination, desertification, and loss of bio-diversity having caught intensive attention from the Chinese government, domestic public, and international community.
In the long run, the Chinese government needs to introduce more economic incentives and disincentives to curb pollution and ecological destruction instead of relying too much on short-term administrative orders.
By enhancing its capacity for environmental governance, Chinese authorities have made concrete steps in curbing pollution with environmental conservation tasks having risen to the highest platform in the political agenda of the ruling Communist Party of China (Carter and Mol, 2007; Economy, 2007). Nevertheless, a society’s ability to identify and resolve environmental problems is not merely based on the knowledge and resources embedded in its bureaucracy and legal framework (Weidner, 2002).
Up to now, China’s environmental protection has been mainly a state-led process, which has been severely restrained by the existing implementation deficit in environmental governance and the inability of the administration to monitor and reduce pollution in this vast nation. The presence of social actors who can act as advocates for the environment and the integration of these non-governmental forces in processes of planning and policy-making can substantially enhance the opportunities for the ongoing environmental transition (Jänicke, 1996).
For years the Chinese government has been reporting daily air pollution levels at major cities based on the data collected from monitoring stations around those cities by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its local branches. Local environmental protection bureaus then calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) indicating the potential harm to human health at a range of 1-500. The higher the AQI, the more polluted the air. However, the AQI system implemented before 2012 did not include the tiniest but potentially harmful PM2.5 particles in its list of major pollutants, such as SO2, NO2, PM10 (particulate matter with diameter ≤10 micrometers), O3 and CO. The Chinese government had been claiming that more “blue sky” days were achieved for the past decade when the daily mean of AQI is equal to, or lower than, 100. Local people on the other hand were getting increasingly doubtful about the authenticity of official data and anxious about the deteriorating visibility and breathability of ambient air quality.
Beijing and other major cities did not release their PM2.5 data until 2012 when the term “PM2.5” became a hot topic in on-line forums and mini-blogs amidst frequent thick smog throughout the year. Chinese officials once refused to publicize PM 2.5 readings, accusing the US embassy in Beijing of meddling in China’s internal affairs for publishing its own monitoring data of PM2.5 online. In 2012, the new leadership headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang had to yield to growing social pressure for the disclosure of PM2.5 readings in major cities. After Li’s statement that the government should present PM2.5 data to the public in a transparent and timely manner, citizens in at least 74 cities have begun to have access to real time environmental indicators including PM2.5.
Smog in Beijing is an image problem as well as a health hazard for hundreds of millions of city dwellers. Many cities have taken ad hoc measures, including suspending construction projects, cutting back on burning coal, shutting down polluting factories, and taking certain classes of vehicle off the roads on heavily polluted days to ensure clean air. Such temporary measures have reminded people of similar contingency plans rolled out before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 or the APEC summit in 2014, which only have short-lived effect instead of offering a long-term solution to the smog problem.
The smog woes experienced by Chinese cities can be mainly attributed to the extensive use of coal, the growing number of motor vehicles and the ongoing massive urbanization and industrialization process in the country. The smog in Beijing is just a telling example of China’s environmental deterioration against the backdrop of breakneck economic growth. The smoggy woes have all the more pointed to the need to shift the growth strategy from the single-minded pursuit of more GDP to the quality aspects of economic growth.
After three decades of breathtaking growth that has transformed China into a middle-income country, the government should seriously consider trading off less GDP growth with a better quality of life. Pollution has become a public health hazard that affects both the rich and poor as well as rapidly increasing the social costs of economic growth.
Air pollution is to some extent an inevitable by-product of the rapid industrialization and urbanization of such a large-sized state. The country’s pollution level has been on the rise as China modernizes its economy; it is now approaching the peak of a Kuznets curve, in which a developing country’s pollution level first increases during the economic takeoff stage, and then decreases after the country completes industrialization and starts to outsource much of its manufacturing activities.
In the long run, the Chinese government needs to introduce more economic incentives and disincentives to curb pollution and ecological destruction instead of relying too much on short-term administrative orders such as closing polluting enterprises or blocking polluting sources. Institutional innovations such as the levy of reasonable discharge fees as well as resource, fuel, and environmental taxes can do a better job than administrative orders to achieve a fair and long-lasting effect.
Carter, N. T. and Mol, A. P. J. (eds.) (2007). Environmental Governance in China. London: Routledge.
Economy, E. C. (2007). The great leap backward? Foreign Affairs, 86(5).
Weidner, H. (2002). Capacity building for ecological modernization: lessons from cross-national research. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(9).
Jänicke, M. (1996). Democracy as a condition for environmental policy success: The importance of non-institutional factors. In William M. Lafferty and James Meadowcroft, (eds.), Democracy and the Environment: Problems and Prospects. Cheltenham: Brookfield.