The horror stories about the Beijing smog still prevail in public minds and one is poorly informed about how China’s capital has addressed the problem. Thus one is happy to be greeted by beautifully azure skies of Beijing. Check for air quality and the index (AQI) hovers around 20 (August 28), which is very good news compared to Kolkata at 57 at the US Consulate. Check for air quality in Delhi, it shows Mandir Marg is 137, Anand Vihar is 160 while and ITO Delhi shows no data and at the US Embassy it is still an unhealthy 124. The road to ambient air across the country is still some way off but the Chinese administration has its eyes set on it.
The Ecology and Environment, Li Ganjie, eloquently explained at the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress, that quality economic growth cannot coexist with a desiccated environment and economic leadership is critical for China. Cut to Kolkata, becoming notorious for the pollution levels, despite the monsoon cleansing offering temporary respite. With winter round the corner, the worry is about the absence of administrative action to address the problem, which is clearly addressable with Beijing showing the way. In four years, 2015-2019, Beijing brought its sulphur dioxide down by 70 per cent and particle pollution by 36 per cent by tackling the problem at source. Even so there is growing concern that over the Chinese approvals for new coal mines and its coal output increasing 2.6 per cent in the first-half of 2019 to 1.76 billion tonnes amidst government insistence that its “ultra-low emissions” technology mandatory in all new coal power plants and improved mine zoning regulations will keep pollution at bay.
Of course, China can address issues by fiat as it has done with the Beijing air, backing the intention with administrative support and funding. After the mandatory air pollution abatement systems as a first step, the coal-powered industry and power stations were required to have cleaner facilities built to run on natural gas. This was followed up by cleaner road fuels, scrapping old vehicles and reducing solid fuel home heating, which was all funded by a Yuan18 billion annual investment (Rs 180 billion) to go by 2017 figures. This is not the state propaganda machinery talking; these are the World Health Organization (WHO) numbers. The disastrous air quality levels led to a global hue and cry and the threat of losing international investment stung the administration into action. Particle pollution in the 62 Chinese cities tracked by WHO was reduced by an average of 30 per cent between 2013 and 2016.
Not that the crisis is resolved across the country but at the time of the writer’s visit, the conditions were “good”. The Beijing’s Clean Air Action Plan 2013-2017 has delivered even though ambient air quality is to be achieved throughout the year. Helping this are the 6,584 electric buses in Beijing’s public bus network, as opposed to the state-owned fleet of a thousand+ buses serving Kolkata city and long distance needs of residents apart from the privately owned fleet of around 3,500 running every day and some 35,000 auto-rickshaws, with dubious pollution records, for an estimated nine million daily commuters. Kolkata rapidly takes out trams, the cleanest mode of transportation. That Kolkata has the sixth place on the basis of overall emission and is at the forefront with the lowest emission among six mega cities (Center for Science and Environment report, August 2018) offers little comfort. Shanghai is yet another city where the air presents no demons.
It has been the first to electrify its fleet of 16,359 public buses, as China became the top country globally in electric transit. It owns 99 per cent of the world’s 385,000 electric buses, which should touch 600,000 by 2025 and not only invest it with leadership position in electric mobility but also drastically helps it reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. At the local level it seems to be no big deal; the English- speaking guide is unaware of how this has been accomplished but knows that even a couple of years ago, the smog was disturbing; now Beijing’s 21 million residents breathe easy. The municipal corporations of Beijing and Kolkata (and other Indian cities for that matter) are studies in contrast. It was the Beijing Municipal Government that decided to tackle air pollution and stop it at source through enforcement of laws, raising the bar as far as air quality is concerned and engaging in a massive public engagement programme that encompassed all pollutants, coal combustion to construction to household fuel burning and went head-on in addressing the transport sector.
It is reliably learnt that electrification of taxis, trucks and all other vehicles will follow thanks to the massively innovative and rapidly growing BYD (abbreviation of Build Your Dreams). Founded in February 1995 as a rechargeable-battery factory, BYD is now a world leader in electric transportation business, the global rail transit market, battery storage system and other allied segments with multinational operations. Global investors have reposed faith in it with MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., investing some $ 230 million for around 9.89 per cent share of BYD in September 2008. BYD Auto Co. Ltd, plan to invest in electric vehicles manufacturing in India and an announcement to this effect may come by the year-end or early 2020. It has made an entry into India in partnership with the Andhra Pradeshbased Olectra Greentech Ltd to assemble BYD’s electric buses apart from its Chennai operations for assembling lithium-ion cells.
It was the Beijing Olympics that pushed the corporation to clean up its act and, motorized transport apart, China pushed for increased shared cycle use that 400 cities have adopted in a bikefriendly country. Thus cities have cycle stands for public use, unlocked by a smart card, which a rider used and on completion of the trip, returns it to a stand at the destination and the fee, barely $0.15 per hour, is automatically deducted. Happily, the New Town Kolkata Development Authority has initiated both the green cycle and the e-scooter schemes and while they await fine-tuning, Kolkata reports no similar thoughts. Half of China’s population is said to be pedal pushing and indeed the government-run Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service has been internationally feted and received the International Ashden Award for Sustainable Travel in 2017. For all this, no Chinese city has achieved the WHO recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10μg/m³. At end-2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached WHO’s interim standard of 35μg/m³.
Coal continues to be an offender and Linfen in Shaanxi province, reported PM2.5 levels of 174 micrograms, while Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province and China’s largest steel-making region, emissions rose to 144 micrograms. However, the heavily industrialized Hebei province, one of the worst performers for air pollution, met China’s standard for PM2.5 pollution for the first time ever in May 2018. Provincial authorities announced that the average concentration of PM2.5 came in at 33 micrograms per cubic meter that month, just below China’s standard of 35. The point is the many approaches being tried, including humungous, 100 meters tall ‘air purifier’ at work in Xian, in Shaanxi, producing more than 10 million cubic meters of clean air per day over a 10 square km area and moderating smog levels in severely polluted areas.
India’s Kurin Systems promises even better results that await the test of performance. Beijing, meanwhile, has moved on to the ‘2018- 2020 Three-year Action Plan’ for Winning the Blue Sky War. A close examination suggests that China is getting its difficult act together over both air pollution and climate change management with large reductions in total emissions of major pollutants along with reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases. Chinadialogue says that apart from the end-of-pipe treatment focus, the country is targeting sources of pollution and structural issues, including transitions in energy, industrial and transportation in a central target to achieve clean skies above 82 cities across the country.
Nevertheless, come winter, China will have problems to report but it will also have effective approaches to solving the problem because the political will drives action instead of talk. Every independent global survey has applauded China’s efforts while India continues to be a hapless story. The current endeavour is to have air suckers around 500 meters tall and 200 meters, which will be more efficient with cleaning capacity over around 30 square kms and take care of smaller cities. India awaits such deployment.
(The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman)