Does China’s newest clean air pledge mean anything? There’s a first time for everything

Raised on promises.
Raised on promises.
Image: Imaginechina via AP Images
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Zhou Shengxian, China’s much-maligned Minister of Environment Protection, promised during a meeting with his European Union counterpart this weekend to usher in a new era of clean air. Specific details are scarce. Here’s the joint statement from Brussels:

Minister Zhou outlined how the concept of ecological civilisation would guide work in the new era and the three priorities of China’s current environmental policy, including air pollution prevention and control with focus on control of PM2.5 , water pollution prevention and control as well as environmental protection in rural areas with drinking water safety as the focus

And here’s what state-run news agency Xinhua had to say:

Zhou said a government action plan for preventing and treating air pollution calls for strictly controlling sectors that produce large amounts of waste and pollution, as well as strengthening efforts to eliminate outdated technology in the steel, cement and electrolytic aluminum industries.

“The central government is determined to curb emissions in energy-consuming and highly-polluting industries,” Zhou said.

Supplies of clean energy such as natural gas and methane will be increased and construction projects that fail to pass environmental evaluations will not be allowed to continue, Zhou said.

Zhou, who has a long history of making unfufilled green promises, has become a figure of public ridicule for his ministry’s poor performance. But pile-up of data about the dangers posed by China’s pollution, most recently a MIT study showing that Chinese citizens who live in the polluted region north of the Huai River live five years less than their southern counterparts, has added more fuel to already-widespread protests and dissatisfaction about pollution in China.

Zhou’s comments come on the heels of a June government promise to limit air pollution by enforcing “strict controls” on polluting industries, which didn’t name specific industries. And China’s finance minister Lou Jiwei said during last week’s China-US strategic dialogue that a tax on greenhouse gas emissions would be introduced “in due time,” on the heels of a seven-city carbon trading pilot program.

Wang Jinnan, deputy head of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, told Xinhua that that weekend announcement “indicates that the government is focusing more on improving air quality, with more attention paid to controlling multiple pollutants and their sources, as well as strengthened cooperation between government departments.”

But as China’s citizens know all too well, you can’t breathe promises—clean air is much preferred.