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Asking China for help

October 30, 2017


I AM not in the habit of following the Communist Party of China’s Congress, but a Reuters news report from the sidelines of the 19th National Congress being held last week in Beijing caught my attention.

It was the Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection, Li Ganjie, stating at a news conference that a strengthened environmental protection system would eventually benefit the country’s economic development. He was responding to public expectations to improve air quality. He also told reporters “We are fully aware of the problems we are facing. Coal accounts for a high proportion of the overall energy mix.” Also, “we have too many commodities transported by trucks. Some companies avoid emission-control measures. Some local governments are not enforcing measures from the central government.” He said that China will strive to comply fully with its own air quality standards by 2035.

Resolve, perseverance, and determination are words that I would use to describe the Chinese response to tackling air pollution. It was not always this way. The Chinese (and the world) had a very bad understanding of the effect of air pollution on health, as recently as 20 years ago.

China is a great example of a country acting in a focused way to reduce air pollution.

Initially, acid rain (from poor air quality) affected crops and damaged buildings in the 1980s in China, becoming much more prevalent by the 1990s. This rang the alarm bells for the Chinese government to take air quality seriously. The impact of air quality on human health was only just being understood better at the time.

Some remarkable efforts followed, including the Chinese putting in place strict sulphur-emissions regulations for their coal power plants, realising that this was an important cause of their pollution. Due to domestic demand, this created a huge market for flue gas desulphurization technology, which the Chinese took on, significantly reducing the global price for this technology. Indeed, according to an industry report, by 2009, China was operating 379,000 MW of scrubbers compared to only 130,000 MW in the US. China is also the largest supplier of many types of air pollution-control equipment and several Chinese companies are the world’s leading suppliers of electrostatic precipitators.

The air quality problem has continued to get worse resulting in the Chinese putting in place even stricter standards for coal plant technology (such as super critical plants) and also investing in other renewable technologies. They also continue to cancel planned and under-construction coal power plants. For example, in January 2017, China cancelled 103 planned and under-construction coal power plants, amounting to 120 GW capacity (yes, gigawatts, ie 120,000 MW).

Air quality management is a continuous battle in China, given the extent of locked-in coal-based power generation, keeping China on its toes — even more so these days as the world, and China’s own citizens, better understand the effect of poor air quality on their health. To their great credit, the Chinese keep this issue front and centre on many fronts, including their active championing of the Paris Climate Agreement, shifting away from a position of highlighting their low carbon emissions per capita and the ‘right’ of all Chinese people to own a (petrol-powered) car. And it is not about their citizens losing out either, but rather about doing things differently.

Indeed, China is shifting deliberately towards an electric car future for its citizens. In doing so, China puts itself clearly in a high moral position, advocating for a better quality of life for its own citizens, as well as a global champion. At the same time, Chinese industry continues to actively help bring down the cost of both air pollution-control technologies and certain renewable energy technologies, such as solar photovoltaic cells, making it a market leader.

China is a great example of a country acting in a focused way to reduce air pollution, prompted by economic and health concerns, but it also shows how difficult it is to clean up if it is left too late. Today, with CPEC, Pakistan is poised for greater economic growth. Can’t we also ask China for help on air quality, under the CPEC umbrella, so we can learn from them and avoid the problems that they face today? We might even be able to partner with Chinese industries to produce the pollution-control technologies we need to help control our own air quality.

A few obvious areas on which to request help from China include the setting up of an air quality-monitoring system for our major cities, so we can actually monitor the pollution. We also need to strengthen the courses in our universities on air pollution, perhaps by partnering with the Chinese, so we can build Pakistani capacity to understand the problem, analyse the sources of pollution and develop the policies and measures to address it.

Capacity building at the state and the national level of our government officials is important, so they can better develop and enforce appropriate environmental standards, which are the main policy tool for protecting human health, if applied properly. China consciously put in place training programmes, for not just its environment professionals, but for all municipal officials, on topics such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, to raise awareness of environmental issues. I know this, because I was one of the course lecturers, and the Chinese translated one of my books for teaching purposes.

Learning about the different roles of the national government and the local governments in improving air quality would also be useful, given that in Pakistan, the 18th Amendment devolves the responsibility for environmental management to the provincial level, and rightly so, as they are closest to the ground. Just these four bits of primarily intellectual help from China could yield us a lot, such as a future in which we (and our children) could be breathing clean air.

The World Health Organisation estimated that the mortality rate in Pakistan attributable to household and ambient pollution per 100,000 population was 87.2 in 2012. With a population of 177.9 million in 2012, that means that 155,000 deaths that year in Pakistan were attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution alone. Compare this number with the 62,574 people who died in Pakistan from terrorist violence between 2003 and Oct 22, 2017, with the worst year on record as 2009, with 11,704 fatalities, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. When will we feel the pressure that it is time to act on air quality to protect the health (and life) of Pakistani citizens? It’s time to leverage our special relationship with China to ask for help, in conjunction with CPEC, on a topic on which they are truly world experts. It would be foolish to let this opportunity pass us by.

The writer is an environmental sustainability and climate expert, and a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2017