A large part of China has experienced frequent haze and air pollution in recent days, arousing pubic concern over air quality, especially PM2.5.
Where do haze and air pollution come from and how to dispel them? What should we do to have sunny days again? MEP Vice Minister Wu Xiaoqing accepted an exclusive interview by our journalist and answered questions related to haze and air pollution.
Natural factors and anthropogenic activities jointly lead to urban air pollution
Journalist: Recently, part of China has suffered from large scale haze. Air quality in many cities reached severe or heavy pollution. What is the cause for it?
Wu: Persistent large scale haze and deteriorating air quality resulted from natural factors and anthropogenic activities. I believe there are several reasons behind this.
First, pollution load of air pollutants is huge. In 2010, China’s total emission of SO2 and NOx both exceeded 22 million tons, ranking the first in the world and discharge of industrial smoke and dust totaled 14.46 million tons. Discharges of all the above pollutants have far exceeded environmental carrying capacity. In the winter, most part of North China increased coal burning by a large amount for heating purpose which also brought about a jump in emission of air pollutants.
Second, the characteristic of compound air pollution is becoming more apparent. Affected by the dual impact of atmospheric circulation and atmospheric chemistry, interaction of air pollution among different cities is getting stronger, particularly pollution transmission between neighboring cities has exerted conspicuous influence.
Third, pollution from vehicles is getting more serious. In 2012, car ownership has topped 100 million. Vehicle exhaust becomes a major source of air pollution in big and middle cities, so that the pollution is caused by compound sources of coal and vehicle exhaust.
Fourth, unfavorable meteorological conditions led to accumulation of pollutants. Conditions for pollution diffusion were poor when haze occurred so that pollutants continue to accumulate at low altitude. In the meanwhile, high humidity in hazy days caused interaction between fog drops and fine particles, prompting the formation of pollution.
Nearly 2/3 cities failed to reached Grade II air quality standard and the task to improve air quality faces grate challenge.
J: We have moved solid steps in air pollution control from the new air quality standard issued last year to the first comprehensive plan for pollution prevention and control. What is the situation for air pollution control?
W: To be honest, China’s air pollution control has made positive achievements since the 11th Five-year Plan period. Specifically, the new standard for ambient air quality issued on Feb. 29, 2012 enabled us to be aligned with the Phase I target set by WHO. On Sep. 27, the State Council approved the 12th Five-year Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution in Key Regions which makes all-rounded arrangements on national effort to control air pollution, making a shift in target orientation from total pollution control to air quality improvement.
However, China still faces severe situation in ambient air environment. We have not solved pollution from coal-burning and the problem is compounded by PM2.5 pollution caused by vehicle and heavy chemical industry and ozone pollution. It is true that air pollution once occurred in developed countries in different stages over the course of several hundred years of development has popped up in China in just twenty years. According to the new standard for air quality, nearly 2/3 of the 330 cities above prefecture level have not reached Grade II air quality standard.
Domestic and international experience in air pollution control proves that to solve serious air pollution is a long-term and arduous task. Developed countries have spent 30-50 years tackling the problem. We need to take the right approach to current situation by getting a deeper understanding of the difficulty, complexity and long time period when it comes to improving air quality and get mentally prepared for it. Meanwhile, we must have the will to make a difference and strive for continuous improvement of air quality.
Control of pollution from PM2.5 depends on change of lifestyle and efficient implementation of pollution reduction projects
J: Recently, air pollution, especially pollution from PM2.5 has come into focus. Do we have any systematic plan for pollution control? What’s the difficulty in controlling PM2.5?
Wu: We totally understand public attention to pollution issues.
Research indicates that the sources for PM2.5 are very complicated including fine particles produced by coal burning, vehicle emissions and flying dust and secondary fine particles transformed from SO2, NOx and volatile organism through sophisticated chemical reaction. In other words, pollution from PM2.5 represents China’s pollution that is structural, compound and compressed.
To solve this problem, we must make fundamental changes in our thought of air pollution control, mode of production and lifestyle. We will have synergetic control of multiple pollutants, strengthen integrated management of various pollution sources and launch regional prevention and control of pollution to improve the environment.
Therefore, the 12th Five-year Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution in Key Regions identifies eight kinds of pollution reduction programs including 13,000 projects in order to slash pollution discharges. Taking this chance, I also urge local governments to put in place funds as soon as possible to better implement these projects.
However, there are a lot of difficulties and pressure ahead while we are controlling air pollution such as the follows.
Economic growth pattern is extensive. In 2011, China’s GDP accounted for 10.48% of the world’s total, but its consumption of cement, iron & steel and energy took up 60%, 49% and 20.3% of the world’s total respectively. Most of the energy-intensive, heavy pollution and resource guzzling industries concentrate in the eastern part. Extensive growth and irrational industrial distribution generate huge amount of pollution discharge. There is a long way to go to transform economic growth pattern and optimize industrial distribution.
Energy structure is not reasonable. Coal burning is the primary culprit of China’s air pollution. For a long time, coal occupies about 70% of China’s energy consumption while clean energy only takes up a small share. In 2011, China’s coal consumption topped 3.5 billion tons, bringing about tremendous pollution and environmental pressure.
Pollution from vehicles is getting conspicuous. In 2012, NOx emitted from 100 million vehicles took up 1/4 of the total emissions across the country. Pollution from vehicles is not only a major contributor to urban haze and photochemical smog pollution, but also produces fine particles at low altitude which are mostly toxic and hazardous substances and detrimental to people’s health.
There are many problems caused by unwise development. Improving legal system is the fundamental approach.
J: What do you think are the gap in present environmental work?
Wu: As the competent department for environmental protection, we clearly understand that current environmental quality allows no optimism. There is a big gap between practical environmental work and people’s expectation. In practice, there are many problems caused by unwise development.
Problems caused by unwise development include what I have mentioned such as extensive economic growth and continuous large consumption of resources and energy. They also include conflict between accelerating process of urbanization and lagging development of supporting facilities and fast increase in car ownership. Besides, some local governments have not fundamentally changed their ideas that lay emphasis on economic development and treat environmental protection lightly so that pollution reduction encounters such problems as neglectful of responsibilities, insufficient incentive and restraint mechanism, weak foundation of related work and lack of capacity.
J: Britain unveiled Clean Air Act since the London smog episode in the 1950s, which has promoted air pollution control effectively. What do you think are the areas that we can enhance through laws and policies with regard to haze?
Wu: Haze is a common challenge all countries face in the process of industrialization. We should study and draw on the lessons and experience of developed countries. To strengthen environmental legislation and improve legal system is the fundamental way to solve air pollution including haze.
First, we will push for revision of the Law on Environmental Protection. As the basic law in the field of environmental protection, the law is under revision to fit into China’s fast economic and social development. We will work with the NPC Law Committee and make the revised the version adaptable to the needs of building ecological civilization and a beautiful China.
We will also promote the revision of Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law. In the face of compound air pollution amid accelerated industrialization, MEP will work harder to promote revision of Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law.
(This English version is for your reference only.In case any discrepancy exists between the Chinese and English context, the Chinese version shall prevail.)