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Editorial: To Win War Against Air Pollution, Give Factories Incentives to Grow Greener

After a not-so-polluted summer followed by days of breezes and blue skies in early autumn, Beijing was hit by a fairly serious bout of smog again last week.

For a city that has often been shrouded in wave after wave of heavy smog, especially in the winter, these bad-air days so early in the year have been adding to the pressure on local authorities, who were required to cut Beijing’s concentration of fine, cancer-causing PM2.5 particulate matter by one-fourth this winter from the same period in 2016.

This year’s measures against air pollution have been considered decisive. The central government in September 2013 ordered the country’s major industrial city clusters, including the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin area in the north, the Yangtze River Delta in the east and the Pearl River Delta in the south, to cut their PM2.5 levels by about 25%, 20% and 15% respectively from their 2012 levels by the end of 2017.

The action plan, released late last month by a number of ministries led by the Ministry of Environmental Protection to target air pollution in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, Hebei province and neighboring areas, also came with a document that detailed how officials will be held accountable for failing to meet their pollution control targets.

Air pollution has been a serious problem in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area in recent years. It is not just related to the slowdown in atmospheric circulation, as some meteorologists have suggested. The area’s economic structure and power-consumption pattern has been the major reason. Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and the neighboring provinces of Shanxi, Shandong and Henan burn one-third of the coal the country consumes. This area also accounts for more than 40% of the country’s steel output and nearly half of its coke production.

The central government’s efforts to cut excess production capacity over the past few years have been progressing slowly due to the foot-dragging of local governments, as the capacity cuts could hurt their local economies, at least in the short term.

As steel and coal prices perk up, resistance to the capacity cuts may strengthen because shutting down steel and coal plants would mean a greater loss of revenue.

However, the capacity cuts mainly target out-of-date facilities that consume excessive resources or have low-energy efficiency. Keeping them alive will mean that the serious pollution will continue.

The central government has made it clear that the local governments must understand that calculated self-interest should give way to the greater task of tackling air pollution.

However, phasing out polluting plants should be accompanied by a well-thought-out plan to upgrade the country’s industrial sector.

The latest action plan on Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei areas said that factories will be shut down by the end of September if the pollutants they discharge are on the government’s list of banned pollutants. Their products and equipment will be removed, and their utility services with be cut off.

Such measures are resolute and harsh. But it is an even more difficult task to help the polluting factories grow greener. If authorities can give companies the right incentives to benefit from an environmentally friendly transformation, they will be more motivated to join the fight against air pollution.

Some places have been seriously lax in environmental protection as a result of local governments’ excessive tolerance of emission or discharge violations. As the central government puts pressure on local governments, some of the local governments have responded by cracking down indiscriminately on local factories. Such harsh tactics, coming on the heels of lax enforcement of environmental protection law, will only hurt the local governments’ credibility.

The public has been suffering from smog for years. It is expected that the air quality will improve substantially after the campaign. However, smog cannot be eliminated in just one battle. The authorities need to establish effective communication systems with the public to reduce obstacles and foster cooperation. To achieve that, the government needs to listen to everyone’s voice, and explain its policies in a clear and timely manner. Policies that may affect the public should be planned and publicized earlier. Otherwise, the government will have to pay a higher price for enforcing them.

Pollution and climate change are not the same problems. But because most air pollutants come from the same sources, such as heating plants, power plants, factories and automobile tailpipes, the fight against air pollution can also help China fulfill its international responsibilities in the fight against climate change.

China has paid a heavy economic and social price for its smog. It is urgent that it win the battle against air pollution this fall and winter and let people feel the significant changes. It will certainly not be easy. But as long as authorities take the proper measures at the proper pace and never give up, Beijing and many other polluted cities will eventually have clear skies to embrace.

Hu Shuli is the editor-in-chief of Caixin Media.

 

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