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February 01, 2013

Smog Stokes China Pollution Debate

by William Ide

Large parts of China were blanketed by smog this week as choking pollution loomed well above levels considered healthy. The long stretch of polluted days has intensified the debate in cities such as Beijing over just what can be done to clear the air.

For many in China, pollution in January was miserable.  Tiny hazardous pollutant particles in the air, or PM 2.5, reached unhealthy levels for long stretches. During the last week of the month, smog hung over cities and towns from Liaoning in the north to as far south as Guangdong.

Polluting industries, construction and the widespread use of coal for heat were blamed. Authorities said the weather made the situation worse. But increased attention is also being directed at cars, especially in cities such as Beijing where the number of automobiles has grown explosively in recent years.

In Beijing, the government already restricts drivers of private automobiles from using their cars at least one day every week, but some say that is not enough.

Xu Yuan, 31, who works in retail says it’s reasonable for the government to consider more restrictions.

Xu says that while this might make it less convenient for some people when they go out, more restrictions would be better on the whole for the environment.

Those who drive, however, have a different view.

Partial solution

​​ ​​One man surnamed Wang says restrictions on car use are only part of the solution.

Wang says factories around Beijing and construction in the city are also part of the problem. He says that while cars are perhaps the easiest part of the equation to handle, more should be done to address the issue of industrial pollution.

Wang Bing also relies heavily on his car for transportation. He says that having even more restrictions would be tough because car driving for many is a habit.

Wang says not only would restrictions make transportation more difficult, they would make people feel like they do not have legs because cars have become people’s legs.

To try and rein in China’s smog, the government has begun requiring a 30 percent cutback in the use of public vehicles on days when pollution levels are bad.

Violations

Beijing journalists found that despite the requirement, many violated orders to not drive public vehicles when the pollution was peaking. According to a report in the Beijing Youth Daily, while some 8,000 vehicles were supposed to be banned from use, nearly 900 drivers ignored those orders.

Pan Xiaochuan, a professor at the Beijing University School of Public Health, says there are some basic measures that could help limit pollution from cars.

Pan says that authorities could seek to lower emissions from cars by raising standards, and that raising the quality of fuel could help.

Fuel quality

Some argue that low-quality fuel in China, containing high amounts of sulfur, is part of the country’s pollution problem. But improving the quality of fuel carries downsides in China, where cheap energy remains a priority.

Pan says that if efforts were made to improve the quality of fuel, prices would most likely go up and that is something that would take some time for the public to accept.

Analysts say that in addition to addressing the issue of fuel quality and inspection standards for cars, doing more to address the problem of traffic congestion in cities such as Beijing is also crucial. They note that when cars are backed up in traffic jams and moving at a slower pace they create five to 10 times more pollution.

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