Clean air: This is what Indian cities can learn from China. But will they?

Pallavi Aiyar

I lived in Beijing for seven years between 2002 and 2009. During that time, visits to India invariably included conversations with aunties who while not usually environmental in their outlook, delightedly commiserated about China’s toxic air. “Oh ho! Such terrible pollution. Tch! Tch!”

Having spent years being dumbfounded by our northern neighbour’s miraculous economic growth it was a comfort to think that the Chinese had some real problems too. “Is it really that bad, beta?” the aunties would ask, egging me on to confirm their best fears. The fact was, and is, that it is bad, but not as bad as India. According to NASA satellite data, the levels of fine particulate matter got worse across India by 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s fell by 17 per cent.

Fine particulate matter is abbreviated as PM 2.5 and refers to microscopic particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, tiny enough to be absorbed deep into the lungs and bloodstream. Sustained exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 causes not only respiratory disorders like bronchitis, asthma and inflammation of the lungs, but can also lead to life-threatening heart attacks and strokes.

According to the WHO, PM 2.5 levels should not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period and 10 micrograms per cubic meter on average over a year. In cities like Delhi and Beijing there are days when PM 2.5 spikes to over 1000, a level so high that it’s literally off the scales of many pollution monitoring devices. Delhi’s average annual PM 2.5 concentrations are in the vicinity of 150 μg/m, compared to about 60 μg/m for Beijing. Overall, Delhi’s PM 2.5 tends to about three times the Beijing mean and 15 times the WHO guidelines.

The learning model

For India, China is the contemporary example to learn from when it comes to battling pollution. Both are large, populous countries attempting to shift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty by industrialising. Environmental degradation has long been the collateral damage of this process of transformation, experienced by all industrialised nations from Japan to the United States.

For governments and citizens to begin to care about pollution as much as economic growth usually requires an inflection point. In Beijing this point was the 2008 Olympics Games, when unprecedented international attention dragged the dirty air into the headlines, where it has stayed since.

In the global imagination China may remain singularly synonymous with bad air, but Beijing has instituted wide-ranging and difficult changes over the last decade. Despite the widespread belief in India that the Chinese government has carte blanche to push through any reforms it likes, in fact the ruling party is not a monolith. Making environmental protection a priority is an ongoing and conflicted process. It has met with considerable pushback from vested interests both within and outside of the Communist Party of China. And yet Beijing has persisted, partly as a response to civil society pressure from below and partly from an elite-driven realization of the economic consequences of unchecked environmental damage.

An intent to “severely punish” environmental violators and those who fail to report such violations was explicitly mentioned in the latest Five Year Plan (2016-2020), which is the country’s greenest to date. Ambitious targets for air quality progress have been set under the plan, requiring hundreds of cities to meet “good” or “excellent” standards for air quality (that is, when the Air Quality Index, which indicates a mix of pollutants, is below 100).

How laws matter

In 2014 China updated its environmental protection law to give local authorities the power to detain company bosses who don’t complete environmental impact assessments. The law also removed limits on the fines that firms could be subject to for breaching pollution quotas. The city of Beijing’s environmental protection bureau handed out fines totalling 183 million yuan (£21.5m) for pollution law violations in 2015 alone, according to Chinese state media.

China’s pollution fighting attempts have been multi-pronged, but with a focus on heavy industry. Despite being the mainstay of China’s energy mix, coal-fired power plants have come under the hammer. In March 2017 the national government announced the closure or cancellation of 103 of these plants, which would have been capable of generating a total of more than 50 gigawatts of power. The authorities also announced plans to cut steel production capacity by another 50 million tons.

Moreover, all new coal-fired power plants are mandated to be “ultra low emissions”, or about as clean as natural gas plants. To replace coal, China is rolling out the world’s biggest investment in wind and solar power. At the start of this year China’s energy agency said the country will plough 2.5 trillion yuan (£292bn) into renewable power generation by 2020.

Vehicular pollution is not ignored. China’s oil industry now produces gasoline and diesel suitable for vehicles at the China V standard (equivalent to the Euro V). Further, measures to restrict car ownership have been put in place in many cities. Beijingers, for example, can only buy a new car if they do not already have a vehicle registered under their name. They are then eligible to enter a monthly lottery for licence plates.

An all-round approach

A 2016 Greenpeace report points out that China has developed a network of 1500 air quality monitoring stations in over 900 cities. There is no other country in the developing world with this level of monitoring infrastructure. In comparison, India has only thirty-nine such stations, covering twenty-three cities (as of February 2016).

As a result of its extensive capacity to continuously measure the AQI, Chinese policy is able to move from regulating sources of pollution (like vehicles and power plants) to also regulating the overall mix of pollutants in the air and holding localities responsible for adjusting limits to respond to weather changes. In other words, on “bad air days” cities are required to make greater efforts to improve the environment.

The Greenpeace report compares India (unfavourably) with China on a number of other ambient air criteria. For example, the share of thermal power plants with basic pollution abatement equipment in China is 95 per cent compared to 10 per cent in India.

Finally, unlike India, China has learnt that for anti-pollution measures to be successful they must take into account entire air sheds, or zones within which air circulates. Although a few Indian cities (notably Delhi) have taken some anti-pollution actions, these are not coordinated at the regional level. But Beijing’s experience with polluted neighbouring areas like Tianjin and Hebei has proved that unless the North Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan work in tandem with Delhi, even Herculean efforts by the capital city on its own will not prevent it from choking.

China’s experience with industrialisation and fighting pollution shows that blue skies entail a tough, long slog that requires, among other elements, political will, civil society activism, commercial compliance and bureaucratic incentives. There are no silver bullets.


Pallavi Aiyar’s Choked: Everything You Were Afraid To Know About Air Pollution has been published on the Juggernaut app.