Why China’s Good Environmental Policies Have Gone Wrong

As my plane was landing in Beijing in mid-December, I realized I had forgotten to bring my N95 respirator mask, and instantly regretted it. But that day turned out to be clear, if chilly. A Chinese public-health expert later told me that it was no exception: There were far fewer days of smog in 2017 than just a couple of years ago.

Terrific, I thought — until I came to understand the unintended costs of the dramatic improvement in the capital’s air quality.

To reduce the levels of hazardous particles known as PM2.5, the Chinese authorities started a major campaign in 2013 to convert coal-generated heating to gas or electric heating. But in the northern province of Hebei, for example, as overzealous local officials put the changes in place, exceeding government targets, demand for the new fuels suddenly surged — creating shortages that left millions without proper heating in freezing temperaturas.

This is but one example of the ways in which China’s air-pollution policy may have been a bit too successful. The Chinese government deserves credit for its resolve in tackling the problem. Yet the rapid concentration of power under President Xi Jinping — helped along by the steady purging of officials suspected of corruption — has put apparatchiks and bureaucrats on edge. And their rush to please has unexpectedly distorted how environmental policy is made and implemented, sometimes with unwanted consequences.

Why China’s Good Environmental Policies Have Gone WrongIn 2013, after decades of single-mindedly pursuing economic growth, often to the detriment of the environment and public health, the Chinese government changed course. That year, as smog blanketed much of the country, it declared all-out war against air pollution.

The government issued an action plan requiring that the PM2.5 concentration in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area be cut by around 25 percent by the end of 2017. Mr. Xi endorsed the effort himself, over the years repeating that, “Clear waters and green mountains are as good as mountains of gold and silver”.

In 2016, the Ministry of Environmental Protection set up the Central Environmental Protection Inspection to monitor the local implementation of environmental laws and policies. After conducting an investigation in eight regions that summer, 1,140 officials were disciplined — named and shamed, asked to apologize, subjected to administrative sanctions or, in some cases, taken to court.

The pressure remains. In early 2017, the Beijing municipal government announced that by year’s end it would slash its coal consumption by 30 percent more than the goal set in 2013. The following month, the Ministry of Environmental Protection kicked off an inspection campaign said to be its largest to date.

A report delivered by Mr. Xi during the Chinese Communist Party’s last congress in October contained a full chapter dedicated to “Speeding up Reform of the System for Developing an Ecological Civilization and Building a Beautiful China”.

These measures appear to be paying off: By the end of last year, according to government sources, China seemed to have met all the major targets in its 2013 action plan.

Yet the rush to set them and then meet them has had perverse effects.

As it hurriedly devised the national action plan in 2013, the government set targets based on incomplete scientific data, including from health professionals.

Back then, for example, scientists were still debating the causes of smog in China. As a result, Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged last year, China’s air-pollution measures have focused on limiting coal burning, car emissions and flying dust. They do not tackle other pollutants, like ammonia released by nitrogen fertilizers used in agriculture, which, some scientists have said, may contribute up to 20 percent of the smog in China.

The targets were also determined without the benefit of adequate research about the effects of pollution on human health. As of a few months ago, senior health officials were still claiming not to have conclusive clinical studies about the connection between smog and cancer. (Cancer is a leading cause of death in China, and lung cancer is its most common form.) Plausible or not, that assertion suggests that measures for controlling air pollution were devised with too little regard for its actual impact on health. Less attention still has been paid to the health effects of pollution on the elderly, a complicated but ever-more important issue as the population ages.

No wonder some of the pollution-control targets can seem arbitrary: Why decide that the level of PM10, another dangerous particle, should be brought down to 10 percent nationwide, rather than 9 percent — or even 11 percent? And sometimes the goals are inadequate: Beijing authorities are priding themselves on bringing the city’s PM2.5 level below 60 micrograms per cubic meter, yet the World Health Organization recommends a maximum annual mean of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

And then, in order to quickly meet these sometimes questionable goals, some local officials with an eye on career advancement — or simply fearful of being sacked — have overshot or been heavy-handed with enforcement.

One of the objectives of the clean-air campaign was to regulate and remove businesses deemed to be san luan wu — scattered, messy and dirty. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, initially identified 539 such companies. But after local leaders learned that they would be sanctioned if inspectors found any additional san luan wu firms, they expanded their lists to included many very small businesses, like auto repair shops or stalls selling steamed buns. Within three months, the number exceeded 10,000, putting at risk mom-and-pop operations that actually pollute very little.

The haste to fulfill pollution-control targets may also reveal a greater interest in satisfying the demands of short-term campaigns than in undertaking long-term structural changes. Unless the shifts are institutionalized, or at least routinized, they may not be sustained.

Centralized, authoritarian power is sometimes credited with allowing quick policy changes that would be difficult to contemplate in democracies, where checks and balances and political jostling can delay reform. But under Mr. Xi, political power has become so centralized and so authoritarian that it has perverted the incentive structure that drives environmental policy and its execution. In such a system, even good policies can have bad effects.

Yanzhong Huang is a professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and an adjunct senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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