China responds to public anger with new pollution plan

Pew Research Centre reports 47% unhappy with air quality as government releases new 5-year plan

Heavy smog hangs over Tananmen Square – a problem that also poses serious health risks (Pic: Mckay savage)

By Ed King

Levels of air and water pollution are increasing concerns for China’s population, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

It reports that 47% of the 3,226 people it interviewed this year said air quality was a concern, while 40% said access to clean water troubled them.

The results are another indication of growing levels of dissatisfaction with environmental degradation among China’s growing population.

Smog levels in Beijing hit new lows this year, while Shanghai witnessed the bizarre spectacle of thousands of dead pigs floating down the Yangtze river.

The south of the country is still suffering from severe drought, leaving 13 million people without easy access to drinking water, affecting 6.38 million hectares of farmland.

Some reporters say the environment is now the main cause for social unrest in the country, and has also caused a drop in tourism levels to the capital, Beijing.

Last week the government published plans to ban new coal-fired power plants in provinces surrounding Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and also listed new targets to cut coal consumption.

The “Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan” [Chinese version] aims to ensure coal consumption peaks by 2017, and reduce the level of air particulates by up to 25%.

It also contains proposals to regulate the number of cars in major cities, and sets out plans to boost clean energy capacity to 13% in 2017.

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The plan requires China’s most polluted provinces to “strive to achieve a negative coal increase” in five years.

Three provinces, Beijing, Hebei and Shandong, have already pledged to reduce coal consumption by 73 million tonnes, or 10% from 2012 levels, by 2017.

Speaking to RTCC from Beijing, Jiang Kejun from the government-linked Energy Research Institute (ERI) said reducing coal use was now a major part of national planning.

“More people are aware of [options] from a government policymaking basis; they are asking and saying what we should do by 2020. There are more ideas,” he said.

“In China more people are taking part in this kind of discussion.”

Jiang added there is likely to be an additional push to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon intensity.

Coal accounts for around 80% of China’s CO2 emissions.

The country is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

Ambitious efforts to cut its carbon footprint are seen as critical if the world is to avoid warming beyond 2C, above which the consequences of climate change could be increasingly devastating.

Green groups have welcomed the 33-point plan, but there is still considerable doubt on how this will be implemented.

Greenpeace China campaigner Li Yan says it is now vital for the government to outline how it will achieve a ‘coal peak’ within the decade.

“[The] plan promises to set a nationwide limit on coal consumption, without a specific timeline,” Li said in a statement. “We urge the Chinese government to outline a coal peak in the next five-year plan period, starting in 2016.”

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