China has a new aggressive action plan to reduce pollution, but will it be enough?

June 17, 2013
June 17, 2013

At the end of last week, China’s rulers approved 10 anti-pollution measures, which included an order that offending industries must cut harmful emissions by 30% before 2017. Deutsche Bank called it the “most aggressive” push from Beijing yet, but the scale of pollution in China is such that the target may barely cut through the haze.

Even if no new polluting industries set up shop and every existing polluter complied with the order, it still wouldn’t be enough to stop people dying—Beijing was so polluted in January that a cut of 50% would have been required just to bring air quality down to “hazardous” levels. Air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, the equivalent of 25 million lost years of existence.

Deutsche Bank said the policies “represent the beginning, rather than the full package, of China’s anti-air pollution campaign.” Given that an earlier response to public anger at pollution levels was a bizarre crackdown on barbequing, recently announced plans—and threats aimed at party officials who try to get away with turning a blind eye—are rather more encouraging.

Of course, this is not the first time that China has promised to take action. In 2011, it promised a 40% cut in pollution by 2020, per unit of gross domestic product—even more than this latest commitment. It also has a record of “outsourcing” the worst pollution internally to the poorer rural regions in order to meet targets.

To put this into perspective, pollution in industrializing China is actually less, per person, than in Europe during its own industrialization. But unlike 19th century Europe, China has access to technology that can make electricity from the sun and the waves. It’s just not transitioning fast enough to keep up with the country’s breakneck pace of growth.

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