Air pollution tops the agenda at China’s parliament

Both inside and outside the ongoing Lianghui, China’s annual parliamentary season, everyone is talking about what to do about smog. Wang Tao reports.

“First, do more to clean up polluting and energy-hungry industries, like steel and power…. Seventh, limit the use of fireworks.”

Wang Deyong, boss of a printing firm, is a member of the Zhengzhou People’s Political Consultative Conference (PPCC). Six months ago he hadn’t even heard the word ‘smog’ – now he reels off seven different measures for dealing with it. He’s included those seven measures, and research into an emergency action plan for heavily polluted days, into a proposal to the PPCC.

On February 18th, 2013, his “Proposal for Dealing with Smog and Creating a More Beautiful Zhengzhou” was chosen to be the first motion to go before the 5th Plenary Session of the 12th Zhengzhou PPCC.

Ding Mingxing, director of the Zhengzhou PPCC Proposals Committee explained: “Like with the NPPCC, the proposal with the most backers becomes the first to be heard.”

Similarly, the first proposal to be heard in Hefei was also environmental in nature. A merger of three proposals, it covers a “Blue Sky Project”; dealing with pollution from coal-burning furnaces; and a crackdown on heavily-polluting vehicles.

Early in 2013, many of the local Lianghui were held during smoggy weather. Public complaints became the subject of political debate: a review of media articles found that of 31 provincial-level Lianghui’s, 23 heard motions, proposals or discussions on smog, covering all aspects of atmospheric pollution.

Air quality has been the focus of more discussion during the 2013 sessions of the local and national PPCCs than in any other year.

Chen Xiaoya, a member of the Shanghai PPCC and also of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, originally planned to submit a food safety proposal, but then opted to propose increased urban greenery to improve air quality. Wang Quanjie, a representative to the Shandong People’s Congress and a professor at Yantai University, had a proposal on a pet topic of his – disclosure of assets by leading cadres. But during the Congress “you didn’t see the sun once”, his recurrent cough came back, and all the representatives were complaining. So he and many other representatives put together another proposal on preventing atmospheric pollution.

Wang explained that this topic doesn’t affect anyone’s interests and can be talked about more freely. So he just gathered signatures for the smog proposal. As for assets disclosure: “I didn’t ask anyone else to sign, in case it caused them trouble.”

Media scrum over environment

At a Shanghai PPCC press conference the head of the city’s environmental protection bureau found himself surrounded by reporters – he was in even more demand than the transport and housing heads. “In the past,” explained a reporter, “everyone was interested in transportation and house prices.”

Wang Deyong started asking friends in the Environmental Protection Bureau about PM 2.5 pollution six months ago. Once his proposal got some attention he attended seminars with the development and reform committee, and transportation authorities. “I remember they said the city was working on a white paper, and an analysis of pollutants, but I’m no expert, I didn’t really understand.”

The representatives and members putting forward the motions and proposals come from a wide range of backgrounds, with differing levels of specialist knowledge: members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; heads of environmental protection offices; middle school teachers; lawyers; and company bosses. Some miswrote the Chinese characters for smog, others misunderstood the Air Quality Index to be an Air Pollution Index, and even then miswrote it as “PI”.

But the content they put forward covered every aspect of the problem. Prior to 2011, submissions to the Lianghui on air pollution were highly technical. But in the autumn of that year PM 2.5 pollution came to public attention and was included in air standards, and in 2012 representatives called for monitoring and publication of air quality data data.

From 2013, 74 cities around the nation started publishing PM 2.5 data, and the number of proposals on air pollution rocketed. Wang Xiangrong, a professor at Fudan University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering has attended three sessions of the Shanghai PPCC, and said he has seen a distinct increase in related proposals this year.

Enforcement needed more than laws

After Beijing’s local Lianghui, businessman Pan Shiyi held a poll measuring support for a clean air law on his microblog – of more than 50,000 respondents, 98.9% were in favour. Local Lianghui participants have repeatedly proposed legislation.

Wang Quanjie believes legislation is crucial – his proposals on asset disclosure and smog both called for new laws. He thinks that lasting and standardised management requires legislation, and legislation makes later checks and limits easier. Ji Jiayu has more specific reasons – after much reading he has found that many localities are working on emergency measures for days of heavy pollution: “That response is just a part of it; legislation is at the root of dealing with the problem. You need laws, or you’re doing things backwards.”

The smog encircling China’s cities has forced progress on legislation. A consultation period on Beijing’s regulations on preventing atmospheric pollution ended in early February, with 326 responses received in 20 days. Students from Beijing 4th Middle School even submitted a 7,000 word report.

There are also calls for a revision of national legislation on air pollution. The Air Pollution Control Law was first passed in 1987, and the latest revisions have seen little progress since submission to the NPC. Wang Fengchun, head of the legislation office of the NPC’s Environment and Resources Committee, has told the media that during the 2013 Lianghui representatives were sure to call for faster action.

But Lu Zhongmei, NPC representative and expert on environmental and resource law, does not plan to make any related proposals, despite having repeatedly called for a revision to the Environmental Protection Law. She thinks that existing national law allows local governments to set targeted and implemented measures, such as taking on overall responsibility for environmental quality. “Our biggest problem is enforcement. We shouldn’t just keep on revising existing law – law you can’t enforce is just paper…”

Progress? No, not really

During the local Lianghui, Shijiazhuang might have been the nation’s most embarrassed city. In 2012, the Hebei Democratic League’s motion on improving air quality in the provincial capital was put at the top of the agenda. In January 2013, the Hebei PPCC held a press conference on the moves, at which it said that progress had been made on cleaning up the city’s air. But awkwardly, according to the new air quality standards that now include PM 2.5 levels, in January, Shijiazhuang ranked second-worst in air quality among the 74 PM 2.5-reporting cities. And of the ten worst, seven were in Hebei.

Some in Hebei complain this is unfair – as part of the important Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, it has to monitor PM 2.5 levels in eleven cities. Compare this with neighbour provinces Shanxi and Shandong, where only the provincial capitals and Qingdao monitor PM 2.5 levels. This is why Hebei looks so bad.

Despite the loss of face, the data still sounds a warning for the people of Hebei. The PPCC has not yet decided if it will continue to give atmospheric pollution the same priority. “The improvements aren’t that obvious, as car numbers are increasing too quickly. In 2010, Shijiazhuang had 400,000 cars, now it has 600,000,” said Feng Junsheng, one of the proposers of the original motion and deputy head of the Hebei Democratic League’s Political Participation and Discussion Department. They will follow up the 2012 motion with another on atmospheric pollution in 2013 – this time covering the entire province.

But you can’t solve air pollution overnight. On February 18, 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said that it would be 2015 before a system for reducing total PM2.5 emissions in key regions would be in place.

But most members and representatives interviewed were optimistic about putting their plans into action. “It is difficult, it needs to be taken seriously. But the one child policy was difficult, wasn’t it? We did that,” said Wang Quanjie.

This article was originally published on March 1st, Southern Weekend