Despite the Chinese central government’s stringent rules on pollution control and emissions, improvement in air quality nationwide continues to fall short of public expectations, especially in the north of the country which is often smothered by heavy smog.
Part of the reason is that some local officials are reluctant to go all out to enforce those rules for fear they may have a detrimental effect on the local economy, hurting jobs and lowering the revenues that go to the local coffers, which reflects badly on their performance.
Some even resort to cheating, according to reports, by fabricating air pollution data so that polluting enterprises can carry on production despite the restrictions.
By doing so, these officials are putting their own interests before those of the nation, at the expense of public health.
The recent inspection of 18 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and neighbouring areas by the Ministry of Environmental Protection has uncovered further proof of how the central government's efforts to clean up the air are being compromised.
For example, some local
officials have failed to draft detailed emergency plans to restrict industrial operations on heavily polluted days, or not initiated traffic controls when the highest red pollution alerts were issued.
Their poor performance, or even inaction, has contributed to the deteriorating pollution situation in the region, and those found responsible must be punished with the full force of the law.
Yet punishing the officials alone will not solve the problem of air pollution. The more challenging task is how to upgrade the region's industrial structure that is currently heavily dependent on coal, the root cause of smog.
The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, although covering only 2.2 per cent of China’s total area, accounts for more than 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. Behind its mammoth economic might are heavily polluting industries such as steel, cement and chemical enterprises, with coal as the main energy source.
Coal consumption in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region plus Shandong province totals about 1 billion tonnes a year, one-quarter of the country’s total use.
It will take 20 or even 30 years at the present rate to change such an energy mix by increasing the use of clean energy and upgrading the industrial structure to phase out heavily polluting enterprises, according to scientists.
How to accelerate industrial upgrading and the transition to less polluting industries so as to promote the local economy while protecting the environment is the test of their governance ability which officials now have to pass.