By Michael Lelyveld
China has stepped up its battle against urban smog after finding that the vast majority of inspected businesses have been violating air quality rules.
In recent weeks, central government and municipal authorities have announced tougher crackdowns on polluting companies, new emission reduction measures and stiffer penalties for falsifying environmental reports.
In what may be a landmark for enforcement, a court in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province handed down prison sentences of more than one year to seven individuals in a notorious case of data fraud in 2016.
According to local reports at the time, environmental officials in the Chang’an district of the capital Xi’an gained access to an air quality monitoring station with a duplicate key and stuffed the equipment with cotton to report lower readings.
The two district heads of the local environmental bureaus who ordered the tampering were sentenced to terms of up to one year and seven months, the official Xinhua news agency said on June 16.
Two days later, an unnamed Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) official told Xinhua that the agency will “establish a system to prevent and punish environmental data fraud,” including administrative penalties and investigation by prosecutors, “if necessary.”
The threat of direct administrative punishment from the central government’s MEP could mark an escalation of enforcement after years of turning violators over to local authorities who may let polluters off the hook.
A June 16 report by the official English-language China Daily suggested that penalties against chronic offenders still depend on local enforcement.
Such was the case with Shandong Wanli Clothing Co. in coastal Shandong province, which restarted production repeatedly after orders to shut down, the paper said.
“The ministry required all city and county governments to hand down strict punishments to small polluters to control air pollution,” said China Daily without commenting on what the MEP would do if local governments did not comply.
The new push follows findings by MEP inspection teams of widespread noncompliance in 28 cities of the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region over a two-month period.
Inspectors reported violations at 13,785 companies, or more than 70 percent of those examined, the official Xinhua news agency reported on June 11.
The businesses were cited for infractions including operations in unauthorized locations, faulty emissions control equipment, lack of relevant certificates and failure to meet emissions standards, the MEP said.
Official statistics suggest that environmental enforcement is working, but the high rate of continuing noncompliance is evidence that it is not.
On June 22, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) said that courts handled 84,664 civil cases and 18,874 criminal cases dealing with environmental resources last year.
In the criminal cases, 2,944 people were sentenced for pollution, while 20,783 were convicted of damaging natural resources, the SPC said.
The prospect of tougher enforcement comes as Beijing municipal and central government authorities have announced stronger steps to alleviate smog in the capital region.
Officials plan to close 5,500 polluting companies this year affecting 36,000 workers compared with 4,477 businesses shut down in 2016, according to China Daily. The paper did not report whether the companies had reopened elsewhere.
Last winter’s smog crisis plagued the capital and other northern cities with a combination of emissions from coal-fired heating and increased steel production from nearby Hebei mills.
In March, a plan announced by key central government agencies and six provincial-level governments called for shutdowns or production cuts next winter at cement, steel, aluminum, and coal-fired power plants to ease smog in 28 northern cities.
The seasonal suspensions raised concerns that producers would shift their schedules to increase output in warm weather months, resulting in more summer smog.
On June 13, Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced a 10-point antismog plan that includes cutting local power generation by 10 percent, replacing coal-fired furnaces, reducing use of heavy-duty diesel vehicles and relocating 500 factories.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at National University of Singapore, said that lowering local power production would likely have little effect on supplies because China has excess generating capacity.
The environmental benefit would depend on the source of replacement power.
“If it is coal-powered, then the regional pollution problem is not solved,” Andrews-Speed said by email. Beijing has already closed its coal-fired plants as part of a switch to natural gas.
“The other measures should indeed help address the overall problem, as long as the relocated factories have better equipment and higher standards than the existing ones,” Andrews-Speed said.
What the statistics indicate
China points to its official statistics to argue that its air quality has improved over time.
Despite public complaints about smog, the Beijing authorities reported a 9.9 percent drop in smog-causing fine particles known as PM2.5 to 73 micrograms per cubic meter last year.
Beijing’s concentrations have fallen from an annual average of 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013, the bureau’s director Fang Li said.
In a report on June 19, the Communist Party’s Beijing Municipal Committee said that annual average PM2.5 density fell 23.7 percent compared with 2012.
But official reports concede that last year’s average level in the capital was more than twice the national standard set by the cabinet-level State Council.
It is also nearly three times the safe level recommended the World Health Organization.
During the smog crisis in January, average PM2.5 density in the 28 northern cities soared 70 percent from a year earlier to 116 micrograms per cubic meter, the MEP reported.
MEP inspectors found that compliance with shutdown orders among Hebei’s steel mills during the winter was poor.
More recently, officials have been at pains to explain a spike in smog readings in the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region with a 14.9-percent jump in average PM2.5 density from a year earlier in May. The setback has been blamed on a severe sandstorm early in the month.
Beijing’s PM2.5 concentrations soared as high as 684 micrograms per cubic meter during the sandstorm, CNN reported.
An MEP survey of 338 cities found average PM2.5 density unchanged for the month, while concentrations of larger PM10 particles climbed 12.7 percent.
But the weather conditions may have masked the contribution of industrial emissions.
Steel, cement and coal output all rose in May and during the five-month period from year-earlier levels, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported.
Mostly coal-fired power consumption climbed 5.1 percent in May and 6.4 percent over five months, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said.
Improvements are critical
Improvements in Beijing’s air quality are critical to the government’s development goals for the capital, according to the party’s report to the city’s 12th Municipal Congress last month.
The goals seem likely to turn environmental enforcement into an issue of political priorities in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress in the fall.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have approved revisions of the country water pollution control law and introduced a draft law on soil contamination, both threatening tougher penalties for violations.
As the party congress approaches, political leaders can be expected to show greater resolve to improve air quality and solve China’s most visible pollution problem.
“The capital is striving to improve its function as the country’s political, cultural, international exchange and innovation center,” Xinhua said.
On June 21, Beijing’s newly-named party secretary, Cai Qi, pledged to deal with the smog problem and other “urban ills.”
Tackling smog is part of the controversial plan to transform the capital by shifting many key activities out of the core city to ease congestion.
The government plans to move colleges, hospitals, factories and markets out of the central area, using the land for parks and “green areas,” Cai said.