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China's Surprising Solutions to Clear Killer Air

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Wang Jing Bo has mixed feelings about his job at the Tangshan Guofeng Steel and Iron Factory. The air in Tangshan, his hometown, is among the worst in China, and steel mills like the one he works in are a big part of the problem. They're also a target in the war on pollution leaders declared three years ago. Image by Beth Gardiner. China, 2017.

Wang Jing Bo has mixed feelings about his job at the Tangshan Guofeng Steel and Iron Factory. The air in Tangshan, his hometown, is among the worst in China, and steel mills like the one he works in are a big part of the problem. They're also a target in the war on pollution leaders declared three years ago. Image by Beth Gardiner. China, 2017.

TANGSHAN, China—In 1976 this city by the Yellow Sea, some 100 miles east of Beijing in Hebei Province, was obliterated by an earthquake that killed at least 240,000 people—around a quarter of the population. Afterward the city was rebuilt, and it helped build modern China.

Tangshan today is a hub of heavy industry and coal-burning, a city that produces cement, chemicals, and more than five percent of the world’s steel. Flatbed trucks loaded with big rolls of steel are parked on roadsides. From the rubble of 1976, clusters of tall, concrete apartment buildings have risen to house the workers who keep the mills and factories running and the towering smokestacks pumping.

A thick gray smog hangs over it all.

In China today, air pollution kills an estimated 1.1 million people a year. Tangshan is ranked as the country’s sixth most polluted city—and the top five are also in Hebei. Coal smoke from the region’s factories and power plants drifts toward Beijing, contributing to the capital’s infamous “airpocalypses” (there’s one happening this week).

Three years ago, at the Communist Party’s annual congress, Premier Li Keqiang declared war on air pollution in China. At the party congress this past March, he renewed his vow “to make our skies blue again.” Among Li’s main weapons: Reducing the production of steel and of coal-fired electricity. To replace coal, China is rolling out the world’s biggest investment in wind and solar power.

The benefits, if it’s successful, will be felt not just in Tangshan but all over the planet: China is the world’s largest emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases. But in Tangshan, people are also feeling the costs of the fight for cleaner air.

In a little convenience store outside the gates of the Tangshan Guofeng Steel and Iron Factory, Wang Jing Bo perches on a pink plastic stool. His wife, Li Yong Min, runs the store. Wang works in the mill, purifying molten steel and casting it into billets. It’s dangerous work, and temperatures can soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. But the pay is good, the bonus reliable.

Over the past few years, as factories in Tangshan have been shuttered or relocated, ordered to scale back production or to install expensive air scrubbers, Wang has watched colleagues get laid off. But he thinks his mill will survive the cutback in steel-making. The plant’s output “will be stronger and stronger, rather than bigger and bigger,” he predicts confidently. He might almost be talking about China’s aspirations for itself.

A TIME OF RECKONING

China’s war against air pollution is part of a broader reckoning with the health and environmental catastrophe wrought by rapid industrialization over the past few decades. The economic rise has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty—and in Tangshan, out of utter ruin. But it has also left many of them with undrinkable water, tainted food, and toxic air.

Today, officials “are very serious” about improving air quality, says Tonny Xie, director of the secretariat at the Clean Air Alliance of China. “I’m pretty convinced of that.” The Alliance, a group of think tanks and university experts, advises the government on pollution.

The government’s efforts range widely. Chinese cities are pressing residents to give up coal stoves and furnaces at home. Officials have required higher-quality gasoline and diesel for vehicles. Car emissions standards set to take effect in 2020 will be comparable to European and American ones.

But the focus remains on heavy industry. In March the national government announced the closure or cancellation of 103 coal-fired power plants, capable of generating a total of more than 50 gigawatts of power. It said it would also cut steel production capacity by another 50 million tons.

Public anger about dirty air has forced the government’s hand. Levels of fine-particulate pollution in the Beijing region had fallen by more than 25 percent in 2014 and 2015, as initial cuts bore fruit, but in late 2016 and early 2017 they spiked again. A Greenpeace analysis revealed why: Steel production actually increased in 2016, in spite of earlier reductions in capacity, because the central government was stimulating demand and local officials were protecting their mills (read more about this problem).

The public outcry over pollution offers the central government political cover for painful decisions it needs to make, for reasons having nothing to do with the environment. Overcapacity in the steel, cement, glass, and power sectors, fueled by dangerously high levels of debt, is widely considered an economic time bomb that leaders know they must defuse.

But heavy industry “is a very hard sector to touch,” because it provides jobs and is dominated by powerful state-owned companies, says Ma Tianjie, Beijing managing editor of Chinadialogue, an independent London-based website focused on environmental issues. “Having this urban middle-class outcry about air quality actually gives the leadership a lot of legitimacy to push through some of the difficult reforms they have been wanting to achieve.”

CITIZEN WATCHDOGS

What’s perhaps most striking about the Chinese war on pollution is the degree to which the government has dropped its habitual guardedness to embrace an unprecedented level of transparency. Pollution is one problem in China about which there is a robust public conversation.

With stunning (but typically Chinese) speed, the government has built a nationwide network of monitors tracking levels of PM2.5—the tiny combustion particles that penetrate deep into the body, causing not only breathing problems but also heart attacks, strokes and neurological ailments.

More surprisingly, the government has made the data from those monitors publicly available. It has done the same with measurements taken outside thousands of factories. Anyone with a smartphone in China can now check local air quality in real time, see whether a particular facility is breaching emissions limits, and report violators to local enforcement agencies via social media. The level of information compares favorably to what’s available in the U.S.

It marks a real change in the relationship between China’s people and its government, says Ma Jun, whose Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs designed an app drawing on the government data.

“There’s a chance to try a different way, almost like a different way of governance,” he says. “This is a very rare opportunity.”

The governance is still authoritarian, of course. Leaders in Beijing judge the performance of those in the provinces—but a rewrite of the criteria is beginning to change attitudes, Xie says. Under the old system, local officials were evaluated almost exclusively on their region’s economic health. Now environmental concerns, particularly air quality, are given greater weight.

In a top-down regime where such assessments can shape political careers, the change has gotten bureaucrats’ attention. Mayors who have failed to deliver on air quality can be called in to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and warned they must step up efforts.

The results are sometimes more cosmetic than real. Leaders order temporary factory closures to clear the air ahead of high-profile events like international summits. They close factories for weeks in November and December so the city won’t exceed its annual pollution limit. Such last-minute measures, says Ma Tianjie, of Chinadialogue, only “highlight the need to have environmental considerations factored in much earlier in the decision-making process.”

FLOWERS FOR TANGSHAN

Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 earthquake, Tangshan hosted the World Horticultural Expo. The giant flower show was held on the site of a former coal mine. Its theme was “City and Nature, Phoenix Nirvana”—a reference both to Tangshan’s rise from the rubble and its current efforts to clean up its act.

Near the center of town, a steelworker with stylish glasses and spiky hair, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of angering his employer, complains that his salary has shrunk by 20 percent in five years. He blames both falling demand for steel and the impact of environmental rules. But he still likes living in Tangshan—it’s not Nirvana, but the pace of life is comfortable, the sea nearby.

“Except for the pollution,” he says. “There are only a few blue skies all year.” During the flower expo, steel mills in the city cut production to reduce emissions.

Inside Li Young Min’s little shop, smoke from a coal-burning stove fills the air. Wang is heading out to a meeting at their son’s school. Despite the dirty trucks barreling by all day, the steel mill next door and the big piles of coal sitting in a lot down the street, Li, who grew up in Tangshan, says she doesn’t notice much pollution.

Still, she dreams of a different life for her son. Something better than the heat and hard labor his father endures—an office job, although she worries his grades may not be good enough. Maybe in the south, she says, where the winters are warmer, “with more trees and flowers, hills and rivers.”