China has taken the first step to claim compensation from air polluters after a court in Shandong province ruled this week to impose an unprecedented penalty of nearly $3.3 million (22 million yuan) on a local glass manufacturer for its toxic emissions.
The country’s first ruling against air pollution has sent a warning across factories in China to better manage their emissions.
Yet the nation’s uphill battle against its massive air pollution crisis still has a long way to go, environmentalists say.
“With a legal approach, it marks a great beginning for the pursuit of remediation in order to push forward the country’s containment of air pollution,” said Ding Jie of Wuhu Ecology Center in Anhui province, expecting the first legal victory to ease difficulties in addressing the nation’s air pollution.
According to the All-China Environment Federation, which brought up the case, the court Wednesday found Shandong-based Zhenhua Limited responsible after its factory emitted exhaust gases containing more than 255 (metric) tons of sulfur dioxide, 589 tons of nitrogen oxide and 19 tons of dust between November 2013 and February 2015, one month before it was ordered to shut down.
The court not only ordered Zhenhua Limited to pay a penalty that is four times the estimated cost for restoring the damage it caused, but also demanded a public apology from the polluter.
The court denied, however, the environmental group’s request to seek compensation for litigation fees from the polluter.
It is not yet known if the company will appeal the ruling.
War against air pollution
Dirty air in China is killing 4,000 people a day, accounting for one in six premature deaths, according to estimates released by Berkeley Earth late last year. The group found that 1.6 million people, or 16 percent of all deaths in China, die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of heavily polluted air, especially small particles of haze.
The study’s lead author Robert Rohde concluded that 38 percent of the Chinese population lives in an area with a long-term air quality average that would be classified as “unhealthy” by U.S. standards.
China has stepped up efforts to combat its war on air pollution by amending its 15-year-old Air Pollution Control Law, which took effect earlier this year to deploy legal tools against the threat.
Prior to that, the State Council in late 2013 introduced an action plan that vowed by 2017 the level of fine particulates in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta would be cut by 25 percent, 20 percent and 15 percent respectively while banning new coal-fired plants in the key three city clusters.
As significant as Wednesday’s legal victory is, the cuts over the last two years in coal consumption, which contributes to 80 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, are even more important, said Li Shuo, a senior global policy advisor on climate and ocean at Greenpeace East Asia.
Coal consumption decline
Greenpeace’s analysis found that, following a minor fall in 2014, China’s carbon dioxide emissions fell by 1-2 percent in 2015 as a result of 2-4 percent decline in coal consumption and a 5.3 percent drop in cement output, partly due to a contraction in heavy industry such as steel and concrete.
The group says this has been a promising and sustainable decline, but the job to restore clean air is far from done, which requires the pace of carbon dioxide emission decline to accelerate.
“We’re talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room… This [(China) is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.” Li said.
“I think everybody realizes, not only for the sake of climate change, but also for air pollution, [in] very local provinces, we need coal consumption to go down even further and more rapidly,” he added.
Dirty air harm
Despite the overall coal consumption decline, one-third of Chinese cities saw their PM 2.5 level bounce back in the first half of this year as a result of coal consumption growth, which is alarming, Greenpeace’s Li said. PM 2.5 refers to particulate matters (PM) found in the air that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and are believed to pose the greatest risks to human health.
Li said the solution is clear: accelerating the nation’s energy transition away from coal and massive adoption of renewable energies.
“We’ve already accumulated so much deficit, so we really need non-linear breakthroughs. To really unleash the potential or to allow that kind of non-linear transformation to happen, a lot of deep policy reforms have to happen in this country,” Li said, referring to the nation’s energy reform.
Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement
Before an energy reform is initiated, China also needs to "show teeth" in the enforcement of environmental protection measures, urged Zhang Jingning of the Wuhu Ecology Center.
The center’s latest report found that the majority of the nation’s 231 waste incinerators have failed to make public their emission data for public scrutiny. And 30 of those 105 incinerators, which have fully disclosed their data, were found to have exceeded their safety limits by 4,682 accounts in the first quarter of this year.
“Even if national limits are met, the amount of pollutants emitted from incinerators can be significant, including dust, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen oxide,” Zhang said.