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Mainland cities struggle to meet clean-air standards

While environmentalists welcome new limits, minister admits smog problem could take decades to deal with

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing 
Mar 03, 2012

Newly revised clean-air standards pose severe challenges to mainland authorities, with at least two-thirds of cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, failing to meet the stricter pollution limits released this week, a senior environmental official said yesterday.

Although the revised air quality standards still lag far behind those in the West, Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing admitted it would take many years, even decades, to meet them given the country’s widespread smog problems and rapid economic development.

Environmentalists said the release of the new pollution standards, which include smog-related pollutants such as fine particles and set stricter limits for other pollutants, was a victory for the people following a national outcry last year about the government’s secrecy over widespread smog problems in cities.

Wu also hailed the overhaul of the standards as a landmark move.

“[The new standards] will help allay or remove public discontent over official pollution monitoring data, restore the government’s credibility and burnish its [tainted] international image,” he said at a briefing yesterday.

“A survey finding that two-thirds of mainland cities are unable to meet the new air quality standards underlines the severity of the challenges we are facing in cleaning up urban air. Improving air quality requires long years of unremitting effort from every one of us.”

Several mainland pollution experts said that up to 80 per cent of cities currently fail the new pollution limits, which will be formally introduced in 2016.

Air pollution problems have worsened over the past six months, with increasingly environmentally aware city-dwellers turning up the heat on governments for their inability to curb pollution and ridiculing official readings.

Wu admitted that key limit values in the revised standards, such as concentrations of health-threatening PM2.5 – respirable particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter – and other key pollutants, were much higher than those recommended by the World Health Organisation.

“China remains a developing country and the level of economic and technological development determines that we can only adopt the WHO’s lower limits,” he said.

He said over 2 billion yuan had been earmarked to set up 1,500 monitoring stations across the mainland by 2015.

Wu dismissed concerns over the accuracy of monitoring data, saying that state-of-the-art equipment and methodologies would be used to ensure the quality of official statistics.

Provincial capitals and major cities in affluent yet smog-hit regions such as the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas and the area covering Beijing and Tianjin are required to start monitoring PM2.5 this year.

Wu also questioned the pollution readings published online by the US embassy in Beijing, saying they were based on a single monitoring station and did not accurately reflect the capital’s smog problems.

Ma Yongliang , a pollution expert at Tsinghua University, said the new standards would help promote transparency about the country’s pollution woes and exert more pressure on mainland authorities to speed up pollution-control efforts.

“Despite the release of the stricter standards, it remains extremely difficult to improve air quality, which would come largely at the expense of economic growth,” he said.

Beijing municipal authorities have said that the smog-plagued city will not be able to meet the new standards for almost two decades.

Smoke belches from a chimney stack in downtown Qingdao, in the eastern province of Shandong.Smoke belches from a chimney stack in downtown Qingdao, in the eastern province of Shandong.
Photo: EPA

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