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August 07, 2013

China’s Commitment to Cleaner Air


Haze pollution in Beijing. Photo credit: David Barrie

Just how serious is China about reducing its consumption of coal? China's environmental minister recently announced that the government is quite serious about tackling its massive environmental problems by committing 1.7 trillion yuan --  about $277 billion -- to the fight against air pollution, in particular the highly dangerous pollutant PM2.5 or soot. With a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, or smaller than the width of a human hair, soot particles lodge deep in our lungs and bloodstream, leading to heart attacks, lung damage, and thousands of premature deaths each year. In fact, in 2010, soot accounted for approximately 1.2 million premature deaths in China.

To reach its goal, China's State Council has established ten measures that cover a wide range of environmental activities or fields: from laws and regulations; to the production of steel, cement, and other industry practices; to everyday behaviors and norms. For example, the government will push major industries to cut their emissions by 30 percent in the next five years. Such measures are crucial to confront the severe environmental and health risks from coal, which has hit the areas around Hebei -- the industrial area that is wreaking havoc on Beijing -- especially hard. In fact, six out of the ten most polluted cities in China lie in this region, including Beijing. And while soot levels may have dropped sharply since January 2013, those levels are still double the national air-quality standards the government has set (see chart below).

By adopting such measures, China is indicating that it wants to slice its use of coal by 120 million tons -- the amount of coal used each year by Japan (the third biggest coal consumer in the world). China's action signals both an understanding of the negative effects of coal for its environment as well as for its economy. The West Australian Premier Colin Barrett, Goldman Sachs, and billionaire investor Warren Buffett have each recently also echoed the impending decline of the use of coal.

The Sierra Club eagerly awaits the announcement of China's new measures to combat air pollution. China is clearly taking this issue seriously by investing $277 billion in its efforts. To put that in perspective, the U.S. committed $85 billion in implementing the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. As grave as the environmental problems facing many of China's cities may be, concerted efforts to change industry, the law, and social norms could put China on the path to a cleaner future.

--Chris Chaulk, Sierra Club International Campaign Intern


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