Beijing chokes on smog as China tries to balance industrial recovery and greener growth


Beijing and much of the northern China have been blanketed in choking smog since Sunday, as heavy industry steps up production to help with the country’s economic recovery.

Beijing sounded the alarm about severe air pollution and stopped all outdoor activities in schools and kindergartens on Wednesday, forecasting a “medium to severe pollution process” until Monday in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and neighbouring areas.

According to the air quality index issued by the US embassy, Beijing’s PM2.5 reading was a “very unhealthy” 215 at 10am on Thursday.

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China’s weather authorities blamed the smog on low pressure, high humidity and generally unfriendly weather for pollutant diffusion, which coincided with the annual parliamentary sessions, an event putting China’s capital under the world’s spotlight.

However, analysts noted that humming production in steel, cement and other heavy polluters are to blame, with economic recovery in full swing since the coronavirus pandemic was brought under control.

“The smog is mainly caused by heavy industry in Shandong, Hebei and Henan provinces,” an expert with a state environment research institution said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to overseas media.

“China’s reliance on high pollution, high emission and high energy-consumption industries has not significantly changed. When the meteorological conditions are unfavourable, smog easily returns,” the researcher said. “To avoid that, China should cut current levels of emissions by 70 to 80 per cent in northern China.”

China is responsible for almost 30 per cent of the global energy sector’s CO2 emissions but has vowed to hit peak emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, as announced by President Xi Jinping last year. China is striving to be a responsible stakeholder and a leader in international affairs.

Covid-19 lockdowns give China breathing room on air quality targets

Climate change is also widely regarded as an icebreaker issue on which the US and China can work together to reset a volatile but pivotal relationship. Top diplomats from the two countries will meet in Alaska next week to find common ground as reported by the South China Morning Post on Tuesday.

Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, said: “It’s hard to predict what will be the results of talks between officials from China and the US. Undoubtedly, climate change is one of the few topics they can negotiate and cooperate on.

“However, the air pollution in China, which reminds me of the worst years hit by smog from 2012 to 2017, as well as moderate environmental targets set in China’s blueprints, are likely to put China at a disadvantage in talks with the US,” Li said.

The smog, the second severe wave to hit northern China in about a month, could be directly linked to greater industrial output since the beginning of this year and investments in coal power plants last year, he said.

“I’m deeply worried that China will go back to the old path of economic development at the price of the environment in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

According to Mysteel.com, a Shanghai-based metals information provider, a survey of 247 steel plants across the nation this month showed that 84 per cent of steel furnaces were operating, up 6.3 percentage points compared with a year ago, while around 92 per cent of capacity was in use, 12 percentage points higher than last year.

Last year, China’s industrial capacity utilisation rate was an average 74.5 per cent, rising to 78 per cent in the fourth quarter, a peak since 2013, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. China’s economy expanded 2.3 per cent from 2019 to become the world’s only major country with a positive economic growth last year.

China has set a GDP growth minimum of 6 per cent for this year, and for the first time it has abandoned an overall economic growth target in the five-year plan to 2025, in a bid to give the government flexibility to cope with risks at home and abroad.

14th five-year plan is key to reaching Xi’s environmental goals

Hu Zucai, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said the absence of a growth target “leaves room to deal with the uncertainties”.

“It is also good for guiding all parties to focus on improving the quality and efficiency of development. [But] it does not mean that China will not need a GDP growth rate any longer,” Hu said on Monday.

Meanwhile, in the 14th five-year plan which covers 2021-2025, China aims to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP, or energy intensity, by 13.5 per cent, and has a goal to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 18 per cent from 2020 to 2025. It did not have a target for limiting total energy consumption, a goal found in previous five-year plans.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), said these were “baby steps towards carbon neutrality”.

The goal of cutting carbon emissions by 18 per cent was the same as in the last five-year plan; and the energy intensity goal of 13.5 per cent was lower than the 15 per cent set last year.

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No specific targets were set for wind, solar, hydro, coal or other energy sources in the new five-year plan. As the various government plans also contain language on “promoting the clean use of coal”, the contradiction between targeting low-carbon development and China’s continued investment in coal and fossil fuels stands out in China’s strategy, according to a CREA report written by Myllyvirta.

“The overall five-year plan just left the decision about how fast to start curbing emissions growth and displacing fossil energy to the sectoral plans expected later this year – particularly the energy sector five-year plan and the CO2 peaking action plan.

“The central contradiction between expanding the smokestack economy and promoting green growth appears unresolved,” he said.

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