Combating the Smog in Beijing: Following in Los Angeles’ Footsteps?
October 26, 2015
In recent years, air pollution, particularly smog, has become a major cause of concern in Beijing. To tackle this problem, the Chinese government has enacted several reforms, including stricter regulation on emissions, harsh punishment for polluters, and incentives for new energy development. One could compare the situation in Beijing to that of Los Angeles during the 1960s. During this time, LA faced a similar smog crisis, and the government managed to alleviate the problem through environmental regulations. Although Los Angeles is still ranked today among one of the lowest cities for air quality in U.S., the pollution rates are much better than they were fifty years ago. Using Los Angeles as an example, can one predict the future of smog alleviation in Beijing? The experience of Los Angeles will offer some implications and insight, but whether Beijing can successfully address its air pollution depends on its future efforts for comprehensive legislation reform and effective implementation.
LA & Beijing: Similarities in pollution sources and ways of regulation
Back in the 1960s, people in Los Angeles breathed some of the dirtiest air in the U,S.. Emissions from steel and chemical plants, oil refineries, trash incarcerators and vehicles had resulted in high ozone levels and thus collectively caused the smog crisis. In 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was enacted as the first federal law to regulate emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Under the guidance of the CAA, the California state government issued smog certificates and installed catalytic converters for cars. The CAA also authorized the EPA to regulate industry emissions.
Beijing’s current smog problem is due to high levels of PM 2.5, which can be easily inhaled; over time, these high PM levels can cause respiratory diseases and even cancer. Even before the current smog crisis, awareness of such pollution has been raised. In 2007, the then premier Wen Jiabao made 48 references to “pollution,” “environment,” or “environment protection” in his State of the Union address. As the situation got worse over the past few years, people began to feel anxious about the environment, and massive protests against environment pollution occurred. Consequently, in 2013, the government announced a five-year, $277 billion spending spree to clean up the country’s air. After two years of debate, the National People’s Representatives Conference, the highest legislative body of China, finally approved the new Environmental Protection Law in 2015. The current regulations aim to reduce air pollution by specifically focusing on reduction of industry and vehicle emissions. Under certain circumstances, there are “extreme measures” that may be implemented, including an odd-even limit on car plates and directly shutting down factories. In the past, similar “extreme measures” are have proved to be only somewhat effective at the local level. For example, during APEC in 2014, the local government granted people special holidays to keep millions of vehicles off the roads, and about 10,000 factories in Beijing and the nearby Hebei Province were shut down in order to maintain a blue sky. However, such an “APEC blue” doesn’t last long before the air pollution returns. These “extreme measures” have only short-term effectiveness, but they are not feasible in the long run.
LA & Beijing: Differences in people’s reactions and effectiveness of measures
In Los Angeles, it took some time before people realized that the smog was causing public health problems. People did not initially observe a problem with vehicle emissions, due to the inability to link brown smog with the invisible gas coming from cars. However, in 1952, researchers found that the ozone, a primary component of the smog, comes from complex chemical reactions of the hydrocarbons from oil refineries and automobile exhaust. Doctors subsequently determined that the smog had a negative impact on one’s health. People then began to take the problem more seriously. When regulations came out, the automakers were initially slow to respond because they were worried about the costs of additional catalytic converters. And some politicians argued that reducing emissions in factories would cost jobs. That being said, people have seen a change in the air quality thanks to these regulations. Since 1960, smog pollution in Los Angeles has dropped 98 percent.
In Beijing, awareness of air pollution’s negative effects has been increasing since the smog crisis hit the city. The transparency of the government-measured data on PM 2.5 levels played an important role in raising such awareness. This data, though controversial, enabled people to self-monitor air quality. Several NGOs have started public-awareness campaigns to encourage the Chinese to cut emissions and urge the government to make stricter environmental laws. Beijing’s recent regulations thus have proved ineffective. According to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s Air Quality data, there was no significant decrease in PM2.5 levels through 2010-2014. Albeit these figures were released before the enactment of the new Environment Protection Law this year, there were still several regulations on emission reduction and environment protection at the local level.
(Source: David Yanofsky, Quartz; data from U.S. Dept. of State)
The low effectiveness of early environmental regulations in Beijing is subject to the gaps between the enactment of legislation and their subsequent implementation. Firstly, regulations often contain vague language about responsibilities, making it hard to identify which government agency has the authority over enforcement. Secondly, there are conflicts of interests between the Chinese government and industries. In particular, local governments usually care more about economic growth than the environment, because the industries are their major source of tax revenue and also a strong driver of the GDP growth. Furthermore, the punishments for violating environmental regulations are not sufficient to bring the pollution down to a promising level. For example, even though there are pollution fines in place for many industries, companies tend to merely pay them off and just consider them as part of their production costs. Also, because of the lack of an effective supervision system, some will get away with polluting without repercussions.
A Hope for the Future
Any change takes time. Perhaps it is premature to judge the effectiveness of environmental regulations in Beijing. Despite its insufficiencies, Beijing still has the potential to reach pollution reduction levels comparable to those seen in Los Angeles.
Similar to what Los Angeles did several decades ago, Beijing’s strategy to combat smog includes both emission reduction and the promotion of new energy resources. This kind of regulation forces people to change their behavior and triggers innovation. The government explicitly encourages the production and purchase of new energy vehicles by offering subsidies; such subsidies are promising to future pollutions alleviation.
Another important aspect is China’s new Environment Protection Law, which took effect in January 2015 and serves as the most strict environmental protection law in China to this day. The new law adds more severe punishment for pollution, holds government officials accountable for pollution monitoring, and provides ways for local NGOs to bring lawsuits regarding environment issues. Thus, the new piece of legislation is trying to address failures in former regulations and help Beijing adapt more ambitious goals of pollution reduction.
Furthermore, Beijing has a huge public transportation system, covering almost every community across the city. In recent years, with the development in new energy technology, Beijing is introducing diesel-electric hybrid buses into the public transportation system. With more environmentally friendly buses, the utilization of the public transportation will have a positive impact on smog alleviation. This is clearly a crucial step in transforming into an environment-friendly lifestyle.
With the constantly high PM 2.5 levels, the Chinese are more concerned than ever. Although for now the environmental reforms in Beijing haven’t translated into a concrete improvement in air quality, people’s awareness is high, and there is potential for emission reduction and pollution alleviation in Beijing in the near future.
 “Beijing to buy 1000 environment-friendly buses”, China.org.cn, accessed October 19, 2015.
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