Abstract pattern made of green and red swirls

Studying China’s Air Pollution from Australia

Image Credit: David Liu

I am a Chinese student doing a Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability at ANU. I have a great passion for exploring environmental issues as well as formulating possible solutions. Over the past two years, I have gained the multidisciplinary perspectives, skills and knowledge I need to engage with complex environmental problems through investigating the situations in China and Australia. Here is a brief of China’s air-related problems with critical analysis and recommendations.

Air pollution has been increasingly recognised as one of the major global environmental threats to sustainable development, particularly in urban areas of developing countries. China is experiencing the fastest rate of economic growth, as well as more severe air pollution than ever before. According to the Air Quality Index computed by government agencies (based on concentration of PM2.5, PM10 and other harmful molecules), some northern cities show a frequent unhealthy or hazardous air quality over the past ten years, especially during winters. As a typical non-point source pollution, China’s air pollution is driven by a variety of contributors. Local sources of air pollutants are mainly from transportation, coal burning, urban dust pollution and industrial emissions. Additionally, there are sands and dusts transported from surrounding provinces by prevailing winds. Air pollution has destructive impacts on the entire society in terms of threats to human’s physical and mental health, reduction in agricultural output, economic loss, and environmental costs. Therefore, an advanced policy framework is urgently required featuring multifaceted strategies and sustainable patterns of development.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection of China has made many relevant laws since the 1980s which regulate quantitative emission standards and provide specific targets and methods. Some desired outcomes have been achieved; however, they had limitations in tackling evolving environmental problems. Thus, they have been amended after 2012 when PM2.5 crisis emerged across major northern cities. One of the key policies applied currently is the establishment of an air-quality forecasting and assessing system that is open to the public. For instance, a ‘Red Alarm’ indicates the need for dust masks and less outdoor activities. Nowadays there are many effective policies for air pollution control in central cities with emphasis on vehicle and industrial emissions. For instance, private car use is limited by an odd-even license plate rule, trucks with diesel engines are prohibited in urban district, and an advanced metro system has been built to provide better public transport service. Moreover, upper limit on emission of toxic particulates is set with penalty on excessive emission.

Internal capabilities can be seen in this problem solving process. Public behaviour change becomes more feasible in China as it has an increasing number of educated population and it implements various incentives to make people change. However, there are also vulnerabilities and limitations. Tough policy instruments can lead to unintended consequences in terms of economic recession, unemployment and disaffection among stakeholders. Moreover, this issue is complex and requires collaborative action over a widespread area. Nevertheless, the current policy framework focuses more on jurisdiction-based management but lacks regional coordination. Additionally, external circumstances exploited show opportunities for further actions. There is a wave of economic transformation across developing countries where traditional industries are encouraged to apply clean technology to their production. Long-range air pollution has also become a global concern and more international cooperation via regional forum and agreements is emerging.

One policy recommendation for mitigating this problem is enhancing credibility and on-ground enforcement of law to be made. Firstly, formulate an interdepartmental committee across relevant provincial agencies aiming to establish a live air information database that works in tracking sources of pollutants, quantifying cross-border transport of pollutants, and providing statistics for decision making. Then form a combination of administrative and societal supervision and broaden means of stakeholder engagement through new platforms. Another recommendation is creating incentives for main stakeholders to change their attitude and behaviour. Government should provide industries with monetary and technological support for traditional industries to enable structural transformation, phase out high-emission plants operating in major cities, and subsidise development of clean energy techniques. For transportation sector, government should increase vehicle purchase tax on buying fuel-inefficient cars, deliver cheaper public transport service, and lower market access threshold for emerging energy-efficient transport industries such as car sharing and ride sourcing. In addition, educating the whole society on the importance and urgency of air pollution control and what could be done for that as citizens is also important. Government should initiate more regular meetings of affected stakeholders and in particular those with expertise to investigate further into this issue and find sustainable pathway for the country.