On way to building a green, healthy future
China has made significant achievements in environmental development, especially in controlling and preventing air pollution, over the past five years. As Premier Li Keqiang said in the Government Work Report he delivered to the on-going first session of the 13th National People's Congress on March 5, the emission of major air pollutants was continuously reduced and smoggy days in major cities were halved from 2013 to 2017. The improved air quality can be attributed to the five-sphere integrated plan.
And now that the Ministry of Ecological Environment is to be established, by incorporating the Ministry of Environmental Protection and some functions and duties of several ministries and commissions, the environment and ecology will be better protected.
Thanks to President Xi Jinping's remark that "green hills and clear waters are golden and silver mountains", emission control and environmental protection have been prioritized in the work agendas of the central government down up to those of city governments.
Stricter environmental inspections, led by the central government, and the strengthened enforcement of environmental laws and standards have made government officials, industries and the people more aware of their environmental protection responsibilities and duties.
The authorities also have taken a holistic package of measures to control emissions from different sources. Coal burning, industrial production and vehicle emissions have been identified as the three major sources of air pollution, especially in urban areas. In response, the measures taken to optimize the primary energy structure have reduced coal consumption by 8.1 percent and increased clean energy consumption by 6.3 percent.
Besides, energy saving and emission programs in key industries have retrofitted 71 percent of the coal-fired power plants to be ultra-low emission units, and stricter vehicle emission standards have led to the scrapping of more than 20 million highly polluting vehicles. Many other measures aimed at optimizing the structures of energy, industry and transportation, closure of highly polluting units, and promotion of electric vehicles have also helped reduce and prevent air pollution.
Moreover, China's road map for transitioning from coal to clean energy to reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions has been serving as a strong driving force to realize the commitments to the Paris climate agreement of 2015.
But despite China making a lot of achievements in the fight against air pollution, its air quality is far from reaching the World Health Organization's standard for a healthy life. At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping said the efforts to control and prevent air pollution should be intensified so that China can win the "battle to protect blue sky" in the long run. In this context, the changes in the energy and industrial structures will help reduce carbon emissions from industry sources, although the emissions from the transportation sector will go up because of rapid urbanization and the increasing demand for travel.
So efforts being made to improve the air quality should continue, with the focus on reducing vehicle emissions. The next stage tailpipe exhaust control, as stated in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), should be concentrated on heavy-duty diesel vehicles which emit huge volumes of nitrogen oxides and particulate matters in the atmosphere. Data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection show that by the end of 2016, heavy-duty diesel vehicles accounted for 3.6 percent of the total vehicles in China, but they emitted 53.5 percent and 60.5 percent of the total nitrogen oxides and particulate matters in the atmosphere.
In China, freight movement greatly relies on heavy-duty diesel vehicles. So as part of the process to optimize the transportation structure, freight movement should be shifted from highways to railways, which will not only save transportation costs but also reduce vehicle emissions. And regional collaboration on coordinated control, by raising emission standards, setting up emission control zones and strengthening the enforcement of environmental laws and standards, will help reduce the emissions from the transportation sector.
The author is a research associate at the World Resources Institute.