The Cost of Cleaning China’s Filthy Air? About $817 Billion, One Official Says

Authorities rush out pledges and promises as another choking winter looms

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Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

A woman walks with her mouth covered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing during a sandstorm on March 9, 2013

China will need to spend nearly 5 trillion yuan, or $817 billion, to fight air pollution, according to Fang Li, spokesman of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection. Fang’s startling estimate came on Sept. 23 as he released the Chinese capital’s antipollution blueprint, which promises significant improvements in air quality by 2017.

Beijing alone will have to fork out $163 billion to clear its skies, according to Fang. The Chinese capital has for many years suffered from serious air pollution, but the smog reached record levels last winter when choking haze engulfed the city for weeks. Forced into action by the ensuing public outrage, the government is now unveiling its clean-air strategy as another undoubtedly toxic winter looms.

According to the plan, Beijing will cut its PM-2.5 index (which measures the tiny airborne pollutants that are most harmful to human health and are one of the main causes of smog) to around 60 micrograms per cu m by 2017. The target is a huge reduction compared with the present figure — the average PM-2.5 index in the first six months of 2013 was 102 — but it is still far above the safety limit of 10 recommended by the World Health Organization.

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The Beijing environmental bureau said the primary sources of the capital’s pollution are motor-vehicle emissions, coal consumption, sandstorms from the north and construction dust. First among these air contaminants is coal, which is still the preferred energy source in China. In order to meet its target reduction, Beijing plans to reduce its coal consumption to 10 million tons per year, down from the current 23 million tons. The city will also close 1,200 polluting factories and pledges to limit the number of vehicles it permits on the road to 6 million, even though tens of thousands of new drivers are being added to the rolls each year.

Surrounding regions will have to play their part too. An analysis by Greenpeace noted that as much as 70% of Beijing’s pollutants are produced outside the municipality’s borders, in nearby provinces like Hebei and Shandong, which rely heavily on coal consumption. Fang says that the central government has “given objectives to nearby provinces and cities … so if they can take care of their own problems, Beijing will be fine with our own target.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese central government issued a national plan to combat air pollution, ordering local governments to reduce PM-2.5 levels. Each month, the Ministry of Environmental Protection will release a list of China’s top 10 most polluting cities, and officials have been told their promotions will be affected if their cities are on the list.

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