China to Get Tough on Environmental Polluters

FILE - Women wearing masks make their way amid the heavy haze in Beijing, Feb. 23, 2014.

China has pledged to get tough on polluters and tighten enforcement in a bid to help clean up its environment, an issue that is one of the Chinese public's biggest concerns.

It also is aiming for zero growth in its consumption of coal, a key resource that helps fuel the world’s second largest economy.

China has seen massive economic growth over the past three decades, but that has come at a huge cost to its environment in the form of soil, water and air pollution. As its economy continues to slow and the government has targeted a rate of growth this year that is the country’s slowest in a quarter of a century, it is looking more toward quality growth.

Cleaning up the environment is a key part of that equation.

King coal

Last year, China declared war on air pollution and in his annual work report to China’s National People’s Congress Thursday, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to continue to do more.

“Environmental pollution is a blight on the people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs heavy on their hearts,” Li said. “We must fight it with all our might.”

One of the key areas China needs to take that fight is its struggle to break its addiction to coal. The country is world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal, which is a main source of air pollution.

In his speech, Premier Li said China will fully implement an action plan to prevent and curb air pollution that includes measures such as upgrading emission controls at coal-burning power plants and striving for zero growth in the consumption of coal this year in key areas of the country.

A report on economic development was also released Thursday. In it, China’s National Development and Reform Commission also took aim at polluting fossil fuels.

The report said in areas affected by severe smog, the government would strictly control the number of energy-intensive industries. It also says that polices would be put in place to reduce coal use and that it would look to replace coal plants with alternative energy sources.

Last year was the first time this century that China saw its consumption of coal drop.

At the NPC meeting, Li also pledged to get tough on polluters.

“We must strictly enforce environmental laws and regulations; crack down on those guilty of creating illegal discharges and emissions and ensure they pay a heavy price for such offences,” he said.

Change is slow

China has been talking about getting tough on the environment for years and it is hard to say just yet, how far authorities will go. Last year, only eight of 74 Chinese cities met their air quality targets.

Earlier this week, an environmental documentary tracing the causes of the country’s air pollution went viral in China.

Authorities have taken steps to tamp down news coverage about the film, but it has yet to be blocked from Chinese video sites. On the Chinese video website youku.com it has already attracted nearly 300 million views, highlighting public concern about the issue.

In the nearly two-hour documentary “Under the Dome,” the film’s maker Chai Jing points out that Beijing had 174 days of polluted air last year. Interviews and on the scene reporting highlight the challenges authorities face in enforcing environmental regulations.

In one scene, an environmental official jokingly says, “I don’t want to open my mouth because I’m afraid that you’ll see I’m toothless.”

The film also draws attention to the strong resistance state-owned energy companies pose to change and how polluting industries are a hotbed for corruption.

Even so, environmental advocates have expressed optimism with the current group of leaders and their willingness to take more aggressive steps to address the problem.

Late last year, China agreed for the first time to peak its emissions by 2030. The country also approved new environmental protection provisions, ending two years of deliberation over the rules. The regulations went into effect in January and allow environmental authorities to name and shame polluters and levy stiff fines.

Local resistance

City University of Hong Kong professor Chan King Ming tells VOA that it is a good sign officials are admitting that it is issue to address, but law enforcement has always been the biggest challenge of environmental governance.

The reason for that, he adds, is that there are so many layers of officials to work through from the central government on down to those at the city and county level.

“I still have many reservations [about the ability] of Chinese officials at these different levels could cooperate with the Beijing government,” Chan said.

And it is not just the layers of government that are an obstacle. Different industries, businesses and sectors are also impacted by environmental policies, he said.

“Every single city or county is developing,” Chan said. “At the same time they would like to make money and so eager to develop, so how could they stop everything?”

Chan admits that it is not an easy job, but said that in addition to goals, more analysis and strategic plans are needed to help local governments find solutions to the big question of how they will produce more energy and with what alternative sources.