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Public opinion key to clearing the air

SCMP – 12 March 2012

Mixed messages have further clouded the issue of urban air quality in China. First the State Council adopted revised pollution standards recommended by the environment ministry that include smog-related pollutants such as fine particles. Within two days a senior environmental official admitted the new standards, which still lag those in the West, posed severe challenges that could take decades to overcome amid chronic smog problems and rapid economic development. Then Premier Wen Jiabao assured the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress the government would not pursue growth at the cost of public health or the environment, and that it was capable of striking a fine balance. But for the first time since his government rolled out goals for pollution curbs and energy conservation, his annual policy speech omitted details of missed targets, prompting concerns that the truth about pollution is too bleak to be made public. The National Development and Reform Commission later confirmed that missed annual targets included both energy and carbon intensity and nitrogen oxides, which add to ground-level ozone formation and can cause lung damage.

China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, has cited the priority of economic development in fending off demands from developed countries that it do more to tackle global warming. But it has become increasingly difficult for the central government to sell that argument to its own people. Mounting public concern over increasingly bad air in urban areas and misleading official pollution readings finally forced its hand on new standards for smog-related pollutants. Health studies have shown a close association between PM2.5 (respirable airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate the lungs) from vehicle exhausts, coal-fired power stations and factories, and premature death from heart and lung disease.

Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing said at least two-thirds of mainland cities – including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – failed the new standards, which were far less strict than recommended by the World Health Organisation. Nonetheless, environmentalists agreed that they were a landmark move. Any doubts that this is a pressing health issue for the mainland were erased by a recent WHO survey of air quality in 1,100 cities that showed Beijing was the 10th dirtiest capital in the world and 26th among 30 mainland cities surveyed. Wu is right to say that the challenge of improving air quality calls for years of unremitting effort from everyone. The adoption of the new standards shows that public opinion is a critical factor. In that respect, hopefully, they will result in more transparency and increasing pressure on mainland authorities to step up efforts to control pollution.

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