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Beijing has been covered by thick smog during the Communist Party National Congress. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

China sees long battle ahead for blue skies, clean water

Challenges persist while policymakers emphasize progress

BEIJING -- Two high-ranking Chinese officials boasted to the media Monday of the country's progress toward cleaner air and water after years of efforts, but they did not shy away from acknowledging that serious challenges remain.

"What has been happening is historic. It is at a turning point, and it is a comprehensive change," Li Ganjie, minister of environmental protection, proclaimed during his introductory remarks at a news conference held on the sidelines of the Communist Party National Congress, a pivotal political event in China held every five years. Efforts to tackle environmental issues over the past five years have been "unprecedented," Li said.

Li Ganjie, China's environmental protection minister, acknowledged that air pollution worsens during fall and winter in northern China, including Beijing. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The minister provided data to support his case. The average level of PM2.5, a particulate pollutant that has become a reference figure for measuring smog in China, dropped by over 30% in three megalopolises -- the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, the Yangtze River Delta with Shanghai at its core and the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province -- in 2016 compared with 2013.

The percentage of the nation's land area subject to acid rain declined to around 7.2% last year from a high of about 30% in the 1990s. Over 18 million "yellow-labeled vehicles" -- gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles that failed to meet emission standards -- have been "phased out" as well.

Li also stressed that protecting the environment "has no influence" on economic growth and employment, but he gave little evidence to back this statement.

Yet Chinese officials were candid in saying that much work remains to be done.

Yang Weimin, deputy director of the party's Office of Financial Work Leading Group, said "our economy has achieved results that attract global attention, but the indisputable fact is, the [deterioration of the environment] has become a weakness for national development and an impediment for people's well-being."

Yang discussed their achievements, but also noted challenges he and his team have faced in tackling the issue. He said that some of their ambitious projects, like creating a balance sheet and property rights mechanism for natural resources, have "stalled" amid a lack of models to follow and for other technical reasons.

For Yang Weimin, deputy director of the Communist Party's Office of Financial Work Leading Group, the largest headache is how to make market-driven incentive mechanisms work. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Old problems also linger. The bureaucratic overlap in dealing with environmental supervision has not been resolved, especially where changes in laws and regulations are involved, as "there are many ways to regulate" pollution and the environment, he said.

But for Yang, who approaches the issue from a macroeconomic perspective, the biggest headache comes where the impact of market-driven incentive mechanisms has not been sufficiently realized.

"We still need to establish a mechanism where you make profits by polluting less," he said, vowing to focus on this as a priority.

Li was perhaps more straightforward in listing the shortcomings. After emphasizing the achievements, he said that "it is true that we now have several issues with regard to prevention and treatment of air pollution."

His list was extensive. Only 84 cities out of 338 monitored for air quality data have met the standard. Pollution levels increase during autumn and winter when heating demand rises, namely in the north. "People living in Beijing would know first hand," Li said.

Little progress has been made on fixing structural issues. The economy's dependence on heavy industry, the high consumption of coal for energy and the reliance on automobiles for transportation are "still too high," he said.

Li pointed to certain companies that lack the mindset to follow regulations on pollution. He blamed some local authorities in which leadership may recognize the urgency of the effort but subordinates do not share the same view -- hence, policies end up not being fully implemented.

When asked about ecological protection of the Yangtze River Belt area, Li delved into specific problems, naming the lack of infrastructure including water treatment facilities, concentration of heavy industry along the coast, serious pollution from rural areas as well as incessant destruction of shoals and wetlands.

President Xi Jinping discussed ecological protection of the Yangtze River area in a symposium he hosted in January, placing it as "predominantly important" -- a level of higher political significance.

Xi, in his three-and-a-half-hour speech at the congress Oct. 18, vowed to further develop an "ecological civilization" -- or flatly put, to clean up the environment. He said he will "fight and win" the campaign to regain blue skies, upgrading it from "fighting it well." Li understood this well, as a man in charge of the environment since May, saying that "the demand is now higher." 

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