Blog Blue Skies in China: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Blue Skies in China: Don’t Hold Your Breath
China is making progress toward cleaning its heavy air and water pollution, but it will take many years to reach levels seen in other industrialized nations.

Hong Kong’s skies could turn blue in a decade or so, but it could take twice as long for the smog to clear in more heavily polluted cities like Beijing.

“It’s possible, but it will take that long,” said Christine Loh, Under Secretary for the Environment, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. “The path is very clear. History tells us that we can clean up using current technologies.”

Under an ambitious cleanup plan, China will shutter many highly polluting factories and gradually replace coal and oil burning power plants with gas fired turbines and renewable energy. But in 2020, oil and coal will still account for 75 percent of Chinese power production, down from 91 percent in 2005.

“We are in an extremely high emissions country. We can’t turn everything off,” Loh said.

China’s rapid economic rise has brought a heavy environmental cost. So, even though industrial and coal-mining regions will feel some pain ahead, the bulk of the country is demanding improved air and water quality.

“The coal sector is already taking a lot of haircut and going through a very difficult time. It’s not just employment, but also all the (economies of) cities around the coal mines,” Loh said. “The (rest of) China wants the air to be cleaner. We will have to let go of some of the coal mines.”

Changing the mix of energy sources will only solve part of the problem. Improving air quality will require replacement of older equipment, including ships and vehicles. Behavioral changes are also necessary, and that could take time to engineer.

“The next step is informing the individual, so the individual can reduce their day to day emissions,” Loh said. Focusing on the impact to their personal health can help convince people to walk more or use public transport.

But Hong Kong, a city of over 7 million people, will also need help from neighboring Guangdong Province, a heavily industrialized area with 100 million people. Hong Kong’s economy is primarily service-orientated, though its auto and port pollution are contributing factors.

“We know that for everything that they do (to clean up), we are really the direct air quality beneficiary,” Loh said.