2013: The year that suffocated China and its aftermath

By Mahak Paliwal

Air pollution is not an emerging issue in China. It has existed for a long time, causing severe damage to the health of people and material ends. The nation was worst hit by the air pollution in 2013. The smoke blackened the entire Chinese airspace resulting in closed airports and roads. In all the hospitals, one could see nothing but children with pollution-filled lungs. The breathing problems and chronic hacking have prevailed in China ever since, making peoples’ lives tougher.

The recent surge in pollution and its effects

However, 2013 is remembered as a landmark year when it comes to China’s history of dealing with air pollution. As air pollution has been an integral component of China’s environmental history, the state has always kept us updated through some policy or other, for combating the same. Since 2013, the issue of ‘air pollution’ is no more confined to mere China but it has gained the attention of the entire globe and has become an object of immediate and political concern. Taking into account the very fact that energy and carbon emissions in China pose a significant threat, the laws dealing with these components have witnessed major amendments in the recent years.

During the initial months of 2013, the Beijing Children’s Hospital had more than 7000 registered patients who were being diagnosed with respiratory diseases. The official reports from the state department present figures which shows that about 800 million people were affected by smog over a span of 1.4 million during the winter of 2013. The air pollution witnesses by China in 2013 was severe enough to cause social unrest, environmental damages and economic deterioration. The air pollution in 2013 was the worst till date and badly hit approximately 13 provinces, as per the records shared by the ministry of environmental protection.

Catalogue of policies implemented by the Chinese government

During the initial years, the officials were unwilling to probe into solutions which would help to minimize air pollution. However, observing the repercussion of increased air pollution especially in 2013, the government organisation along with the aid and advice of various research laboratories, universities and experts, has been speedily working to understand better how the damage can be cured. The People’s Daily published, “Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.” It said, “The seemingly never-ending haze and fog may blur our vision, but makes us see extra clearly the urgency of pollution control and the urgency of the theory of building a socialist ecological civilisation, revealed at the 18th Party Congress.” The five-year plans formulated by the government lay special emphasis on improving the environment technology and planning and regulating the measures to combat air pollution. The plan focuses on “air pollution control, led by government, enforced by companies, driven by market and participated in by the public.” The state has systematically stated penalty and rewards for the polluter and industries indulged in using energy efficient, conservative and emission reduction techniques respectively.  Several computers have been employed for finding out as to how emission from industries, power plants and transportation affect Beijing’s atmosphere. The Chinese government has not only set up exclusive funds for providing a subsidy to environment-friendly industries but also, it has amended policies on pricing, taxation and technology. The state made it mandatory to use the information disclosure system for companies which are involved in causing heavy air pollution.

In June 2013, the state authorities introduced a “Ten Actions” and in later months, the prominently known Action Plan. Premier Li Keqiang said, China is not willing to and shall not “pollute first and clean up later”; instead the nation shall treat pollution with “iron fists.” The government has sincerely scrutinised all the laws to revise them and enhance its implementation.  The Environment Protection Law was amended in 2014 following which the legal liability through fines and detention are now levied upon on a daily basis without entertaining any gap. The role of civilians and the civil society has been increased drastically. The new law plainly defines the qualifications for non-legal actors who wish to file litigation. The law permits approximately 300 “social organizations” associated with the environment to file lawsuits in the People’s Court. The pollution fees have been converted into pollution taxes as expressed in the Environmental Protection Tax Law. In 2015 the capacity of iron-making and steel-making companies was reduced by 15 million tons. Also, the government has made rules which aptly and strictly regulate and control the number of automobiles. Orders have also been passed to increase the utilisation of non-fossil and shale-gas production.

The authorities in the state department, with the aid of improved data and enforcement tools, have made efforts to strengthen the consumption of coal and meet emission targets while abiding by standards. Further, consistent efforts have been made to scale up energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, along with ensuring effective implementation of carbon trading and carbon tax pilot programs. The officials are also involved in pursuing the civilians to give up coal stoves and furnaces at home. The car emission standards in China are expected to reach the levels of America and Europe by the end of 2020.

Implementation of Chinese policies in India

Whereas China has already set up high pitched targets for combating air pollution, India is yet to realise the seriousness of inviting air pollution. Experts to an extent support the government’s claim of taking partial actions for resisting air pollution. However, the state needs to register the importance of public awareness. People in India either seem unaware or are unconcerned about the high levels of pollution that are prevalent in the country. It is, therefore, no surprise that Delhi, the capital of our nation which is home to 20 million and accounts for approximately 10 million vehicles within the city, is a major contributor to this increasing menace Emissions by industries stand equally liable. There are 13 power stations in the capital city which run within a 300 km radius of the city. The already worse quality of air deteriorates further during winters due to the smoke and emissions associated with harvest burning. In China, the consciousness of people forced the Prime Minister Li Keqiang to “declare war” on pollution in 2014. In India, the issue of air pollution barely finds any mention beyond social media and seasonally swells. More often, the issue is accompanied by politics and blame-game. According to Ma Jun, the director at Institute of Public and Environment Affairs, instead of trying to implement the policies of China, it will be more appropriate for the government to make up its mind and access the problem and raise awareness persistently to curb the same. “While learning from China, India needs to localise the experiences, like how China has learned from the West in the past 30 years. Now the most urgent thing is that India needs to raise its people’s awareness about the impact of air pollution,” said Ma.

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