Beijing braces for a smoggy winter while China prioritizes growth

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Beijing is getting ready for another gray winter after China eased air quality targets, signaling the government is focusing on bolstering slowing growth at the expense of cleaner air.

In September, the government eased its target for a key air quality indicator in northern China, including industrial areas surrounding the capital. It is seeking a 4-percent drop in concentrations of deadly PM 2.5 particles in the October-to-March period from a year earlier, lower than the 5.5-percent decline it sought in an earlier draft of pollution-control goals.

China similarly grappled with balancing the competing demands of growth and pollution control last winter, with some economists suggesting the economic slowdown was behind a decision to move away from hard emissions targets as the government tried to keep factories churning.

The need to shore up growth has come into conflict with President Xi Jinping’s move to step up as a global leader on climate change after his counterpart Donald J. Trump scaled back US involvement.

“The weak economic prospect is taming China’s environmental ambition,” said Li Shuo, a policy adviser at Greenpeace China, adding that the targets were probably “watered down” in consultation with multiple ministries and local industrial interests. “The Chinese public may feel this in their lungs in the upcoming winter.”

The environment ministry said last year that northern China’s industrial hub would adopt a more flexible program for its output curbs during the winter, eschewing blanket cuts and taking a differentiated approach to industries, including steel.

Vice Premier Han Zheng on Friday urged authorities to be “realistic,” adopt precise measures and refrain from one-size-fits-all policies in Beijing and its surrounding areas this year, Xinhua reported.

Gray skies

The revised goals also allow for more days with heavy pollution. Still, officials insist that lower targets don’t reflect a weakening in China’s commitment to cleaning up the environment.

“This target is scientifically and rationally formulated on the basis of extensive consultation with relevant departments, local governments and experts,” Liu Youbin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, told reporters last week.

He cited “unfavorable meteorological conditions” while forecasting the smog would last for a long time and cover a wide area, stressing that “the intensity and pressure” of China’s environmental ambitions remain unchanged.

An early sign of less stringent restrictions on factory emissions emerged on October 1, when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule with a grand military parade in Beijing. Despite expectations that limits would be put in place to ensure an azure sky for the festivities, viewers at home and across the globe could hardly make out the cutting-edge fighter jets against a gray sky.

According to the environment ministry, the average proportion of days with good air quality across 337 Chinese cities fell 14.7 percentage points from a year earlier in September to 80.5 percent, while PM 2.5 concentrations rose 18 percent.

In Beijing, air was rated good for only half of the month, down 40 percentage points, while PM 2.5 concentrations jumped 29 percent.

The step back from the more stringent pollution control targets in the draft plan indicates supporting growth is a bigger priority compared with addressing air pollution, at least in the short term, according to a report by Everbright Sun Hung Kai Co.

Flexible targets

Still, a nationwide campaign to switch from burning coal to using natural gas will probably accelerate next year with the start-up of a new pipeline delivering gas from Russia to China, according to Wallace Cheng, an analyst at Bocom International Holdings Co.

There could be other reasons for the recent smog, he said, including an October 27 dust storm  that originated in Mongolia and affected 28 cities in areas, including Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei.

China continued its grind to more moderate growth in the third quarter with gross domestic product rising a less-than-expected 6 percent in the third quarter, the slowest pace since the early 1990s.

With a drop off in exports to the US expected to continue as the trade war drags on, the economy is likely to keep struggling as falling factory prices hit company profits and rising consumer inflation hurts spending power.

“How to step up efforts to curb air pollution while avoiding impacts on the economy is becoming a pressing question,” said Ma Jun, founder and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Current emissions of pollutants are still a lot greater than the capacity that the environment can accommodate.”

The differentiated approach China has taken to counter pollution is “acceptable but we need more transparency in these measures so that the public can supervise them,” said Ma.

China also needs “market-based tools such as green bonds or green supply chains to select companies to balance economic development and environmental protection.”

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