Beijing: In Australia, politicians continue to debate the existence of climate change. Donald Trump’s Environment Protection Agency declared this week that the “war on coal is over”.
In China, the outlook could not be more different.
The war on coal reached fever pitch here this month. As a deadline looms to achieve clean air targets by the end of 2017, October has seen unprecedented measures come into force to curb air pollution and reduce emissions.
Steel production has been halved in major steel cities, coal banned in China’s coal capital, factories closed down for failing pollution inspections, and hundreds of officials sacked for failing to meet environmental targets.
The complete shutdowns, or 50 per cent production cuts, will stay in place for an unprecedented five months.
The winter heating season in China is approaching, when coal use has traditionally spiked, worsening northern China’s notorious air pollution.
But cities are under pressure to meet important domestic targets for clean air, set five years ago by the State Council in response to a public outcry over pollution.
China can’t allow a repeat of last winter, when, after several years of improvement, air quality suddenly worsened in some cities.
For a few days in January 2016, the sky darkened and it looked possible that the “airpocalypse” of 2013 – which first drew global attention to Beijing’s severe air pollution – was back. Social media went into overdrive.
Fighting air pollution is a matter of social stability, Environment Protection Minister Li Ganjie said a fortnight ago.
So now the Chinese government has brought out the “iron fist”.
That was the phrase used by the environment protection bureau in China’s most polluted province, Hebei, as 69 government officials were sacked and 154 handed over to police for investigation last month for failing to implement pollution control measures.
Meeting emissions targets has become a key performance indicator for local Communist Party bosses and mayors alike.
Local governments that don’t enforce the pollution controls will have environmental assessments for new property developments suspended by the Ministry for Environment Protection, effectively blocking deals.
A battle plan has been drawn up by the ministry to cover 28 northern cities, including Beijing and Tianjin, where 7000 pollution inspectors will be deployed to expose violations and look for data fraud.
The curbs on industry, particularly steel making, are hitting world resources prices, including Australia’s biggest exports, as demand for iron ore and coal fall.
Nev Power, chief executive of the world’s fourth-largest iron ore producer, Fortescue Metals Group, whose share price has fallen 18 per cent, describes it as a “seasonal impact”.
“We recognise that considerable efforts have been made by China in recent years to find the right balance between economic development and environmental protection,” he says.
But Chinese environmental policy observers have told Fairfax Media the restrictions put in place this month, which will stay in place for five months and not the usual few weeks, are unprecedented.
Ma Tianjie, managing editor of the environmental policy website China Dialogue, says the reason for the tougher approach is the 2017 deadline for the State Council action plan on air pollution, which is a “crucial policy document”.
Multinationals and Chinese companies have complained the shutdowns and factory closures will hurt business and raise prices.
But, unlike what happens when polluting industries push back against government policy in Australia and the US, they have been given short shrift by China’s Ministry for Environment Protection.
The ministry’s director of environmental impact assessment, Cui Shuhong, held a press conference a fortnight ago to debunk the complaints, saying polluting companies will be phased out because they “disrupt the market order”.
“Healthy and faster economic growth can happen along with an improved environment,” he said.
The ministry released data it claims shows five polluted cities targeted by environment inspection teams have already emerged with stronger economic growth after shutting down steelmaking, removing boilers, curbing coal use and investing in energy efficient technology.
Yuan Xu, associate professor with the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Institute of Environment, Energy and Sustainability, says there has been a major change in the Chinese government’s understanding of the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection.
“In the past, the two were taken as tradeoffs … China has been more and more benefiting from newly created industries and jobs due to environmental protection and especially climate mitigation,” he says.
Renewable energy has created several million jobs and multiple world-leading industries.
Clean Air Asia, a non-profit organisation set up with funding from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, has been tracking the progress of 338 Chinese cities in meeting the five-year pollution targets.
Clean Air Asia’s China director, Dr Fu Lu, says its latest report shows 84 cities attained national air quality standards in 2016. Clean Air believes 74 key cities can achieve the targets in 2017, although this will be hard for Beijing.
“The bad news is some cities failed to attain the targets they set for themselves, or even worse, their emissions rose,” Fu says.
The detailed and stringent measures imposed this month are a response to the public outcry in January as severe air pollution returned to Beijing, she says: “There was heated debate on the internet. It affects public health.”
Zero tolerance on smaller companies caught polluting, who will be forced out of business, shows the government’s “political will” on the issue, Fu adds.
“They will cut their electricity, stop the water supply and they will disappear from the market. They won’t be allowed to move elsewhere.”
Four cities, including Beijing and Tianjin, will introduce “coal-free zones”.
Polluting trucks will be targeted, with the major port of Tianjin banning trucks from entering to transport goods on heavy pollution days, she says. Only trucks that meet emission standards will be allowed to enter on other days.
The fight against air pollution is driving the Chinese government’s emergence as a world leader on climate change, and prompted the dramatic shift in China’s position in 2012 to accept binding targets, says Ma.
“Without domestic pressure from the urban middle class to tackle air pollution we wouldn’t see the action on the global stage from China,” he says.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, China said it will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60-65 per cent by 2030.
China’s special representative on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, has said: “The cause of air pollution and climate change is the same – the burning of fossil fuels. Many of the policies and measures to solve the two issues are the same.”
The first scientific study to show a link between global climate change and northern China’s severe winter air pollution was published in March.
The Georgia Institute of Technology’s research suggests Arctic sea ice loss and increased Eurasian snowfall have changed China’s winter monsoon, reducing winds and trapping pollution over northern Chinese cities.
The 2013 “airpocalypse”, and last winter, saw the same unusual weather conditions, with no ventilation and severe haze.
This finding emphasises the importance of cutting greenhouse gases to alleviate winter pollution, said the study’s author, Yuhang Wang, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech.
But it also suggests the success of China’s big campaign to fight air pollution this winter will depend on weather conditions, he told Fairfax Media.
“There have been many extreme weather events around the world this year, such as the heatwave in early summer in China, the large number of category 4 hurricanes hitting the US, or the ongoing California fires.
“It is definitely the winter to watch from both emission and climate perspectives.”
How China is “waging tough war against air pollution” and tackling climate change:
When Treasurer Scott Morrison visited Beijing last month, he was told China was shutting coal mines because they “aren’t consistent with the government’s environmental objectives”.
China’s biggest coal hub, Taiyuan in Shanxi province, banned the sale, transport and use of coal on October 1. The city produces a quarter of China’s coal output, but the ban will stay in place over winter to reduce coal use by 2 million tonnes.
Across northern cities, 44,000 small coal-fired furnaces will be shut by the end of October, and 72 coal-fired generators will close.
China has stopped construction on 150 gigawatts of planned new coal-fired power generation capacity until 2020.
Another 100 gigawatts will be “upgraded” to reduce emissions.
Half of China’s iron and steel production occurs in the 28 cities in the action plan.
Tianjin, along with the cities of Tangshan, Handan, Shijiazhuang and Anyang will cut steel mill production by 50 per cent from October.
Western analysts estimate 6 per cent of China’s annual crude steel output will be lost.
Emission standards for iron and steel have also been lowered.
Three million households using coal for heating will be provided with electricity or natural gas heating.
176,000 companies who failed to meet emission targets were to be closed by October 1.
Party chiefs will be accountable if a district fails to meet air pollution goals, and will be summoned to Beijing. If major media report more than five times that a province has failed to implement pollution controls, the party chief will be charged with dereliction of duty and punished.
Companies will be shamed in the media, and a WeChat tipline set up for the public to report polluters.
A national emissions trading scheme is expected to begin by the end of 2017, starting with power generators, after seven pilots in major cities.
China’s National Energy Administration plans to spend $US360 billion ($486 billion) by 2020 on renewable energy including solar and wind, to account for half of new generated capacity, and create 13 million jobs. China is already the world’s largest renewable energy employer, with 3.5 million people working in the sector. It added 21 gigawatts of solar capacity in the past six months.
China says it will set a timetable to phase out fossil fuel cars. A 10 per cent minimum sales target for electric cars will be imposed on large car manufacturers from 2019. A car maker producing 1 million cars annually will have to produce and sell 25,000 electric vehicles.
Of a total 205 million registered cars, 1 million are “new energy” vehicles.
Beijing closed its last major coal-fired power plant in March, and will replace coal heating in factories and households by the end of the year. Coal consumption fell to 9.5 million tonnes last year, down from 30 million in 2005.
Beijing said it would “rectify” 5500 “scattered, chaotic and polluting” companies by October. The Beijing Oriental Petrochemical Plant was demolished on September 27 and will become a park.
Source : SMH