The Chinese authorities have relaxed their standards for air quality in the industrial north, apparently hoping to slash production costs at the expense of public health as the number of deaths from cancer and other pollution-related ailments continues to increase.
A recent study conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has found that two major air pollutants are responsible for the deaths of 1.1. million Chinese every year, and cause an annual loss of 20 million tons of crops. Annual economic costs of pollution are 267 billion yuan ($38.8 billion).
On Sept. 27, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and other Chinese regulatory bodies jointly issued updated plans for air quality control in the Jingjinji (京津冀) region, which is a collective abbreviation for the two cities of Beijing and Tianjin plus the surrounding Hebei Province. The plan, which is active in fall and winter of 2018 and 2019, also affects other cities and areas in northern China.
The two major pollutants are PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, which are responsible for cancer and other, mostly respiratory, diseases when they accumulate in the bloodstream via the lungs. PM2.5 is an abbreviation for atmospheric particulate matter of widths less than 2.5 micrometers, or 3 percent the diameter of an average human hair.
Ozone, which is produced by burning fossil fuels, causes respiratory and heart ailments, and impacts photosynthesis in plants and crops.
Production and pollution
Official data shows that the 10 Chinese cities with the worst air pollution between this January and August were distributed in the Jingjinji region, which is home to around 100 million people. According to the 2017 edition of the “Urban Blue Book” published by China’s Academy of Social Sciences, the average annual PM2.5 concentration in Beijing during 2016 twice exceeded the threshold deemed safe by national standards.
Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province and a city home to several million people in the built-up area, was rated the city with the worst air in China in 2017. That year, central regulators ordered local authorities to reduce Shijiazhuang’s PM2.5 emissions by 25 percent, but this year the target has been lowered to just 4.5 percent.
The average concentration of PM2.5 in Chinese cities is more than twice the average recorded inn over 2,500 cities around the world.
A Sept. 28 financial report by Sina, a major Chinese news outlet, speculated that the lowered standards is likely to be part of the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to shore up economic growth and productivity as markets weaken and tariffs imposed by the United States take their toll on Chinese export profits.
“It’s probably difficult for large-scale enterprises like steel mills to meet environmental protection requirements,” said Lin Jiang, a professor of economics at Sun Yat-Sen University in southern China’s Guangzhou Province, told Radio Free Asia on Sept. 28.
He believes the relaxed targets issued by the Chinese central and local authorities are a “last resort” directly related to the Sino-US trade war.
“If the relevant departments insist on such high standards, these enterprises might simply close their businesses. It would have a serious impact on the local economy,” Lin said.
In June, regional authorities in Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangdong published a report saying that ozone concentrations along the southern Chinese coast have risen an average of 16 percent every year for the last six years and reached a new high in 2017.
Chinese pollution also affects neighboring countries, including Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. It has also been largely responsible for the increase in ozone in the U.S. West Coast.
The Chinese communist regime tends to mask the actual severity of domestic air pollution. Since 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has provided a real-time PM2.5 index using its diplomatic privileges to escape censorship.